Tel Aviv gangster Ya'acov Alperon liked his violence up close and personal. He relied on his boxer's swift, sledgehammer fists and the blade of a knife to terrorize Tel Aviv's shopkeepers, brothel owners and drug dealers into paying protection money. But in the end, what finally got Alperon was that most impersonal of assassin's weapons: the car bomb.
On Monday, Alperon, 53, donned a jaunty black fedora and sunglasses and drove to a Tel Aviv courthouse to boost the spirits of a son who was being indicted for allegedly running an extortion racket. Afterward, Alperon climbed into a white Volkswagen (he wasn't all that flashy a mobster) and drove into a busy thoroughfare, where the bomb, set off by remote control, exploded. The feared don of one of Israel's most powerful crime families was killed instantly, and police say his murder will certainly be avenged, most likely triggering a round of gang warfare. (See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)
At his Tel Aviv funeral, one of his sons cried out: "I'll find my father's killer, and I'll cut off his head! I'll smash his balls!" The quote circulated widely in the Israeli press. Later, the family issued a statement saying it would not seek retribution, but few are buying it, least of all the police and Tel Aviv's other crime families. An officer was quoted by YnetNews, an Internet wire service, as saying, "[The Alperons] have to retaliate besides the fact that they have a moral debt to their brother, if they do nothing, the Alperon name, which is the most important thing they have, will be worthless."
Ya'acov Alperon liked to say he had no enemies, but what he meant was that he had no enemies he feared. Israel is a small country, and it was inevitable that a gangster with ambitions like Alperon would step on his rivals' toes. Once before, they had tried to kill him with a car bomb. Another time, police had caught four Belarusan hit men who were shadowing him. His older brother Nissim, 55, has survived nine assassination attempts.
The Alperon brothers, say police, were feuding with at least four gang families. "They are the most primitive type," says Menachem Amir, a respected Israeli criminologist. "They specialize in violence and extortion. You'd find men like them in the Roman markets of antiquity. Nothing's changed." They weren't quite 007 villains: they fought pitched battles over who would control the $50 million market in recycled plastic bottles.
Most of Israel's older gang families are second-generation Mizrahi Jews whose parents were refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Ya'acov was one of 11 brothers, the son of a milkman who fled Egypt. A second wave of gangsters appeared in the 1990s: Russian Jewish criminals who control the prostitution rackets, often smuggling Eastern European women into Israel across the Sinai desert, using Bedouin guides. "The Russians are smart and very violent," says Amir. In a model of entrepreneurial cooperation, some Jewish and Arab gangs hook up to smuggle drugs, stolen cars and arms between the Palestinian territories and Israel.
Old-time Israeli gangsters were more discreet than today's brutal new breed. Killings used to be conducted in a quiet manner with a knife or an execution in a remote place, with the corpse buried in the sand dunes south of Tel Aviv. But today, assassins open fire in crowded cafés or set off explosives. Alperon prefered to use the simpler kinds of violence; he was destroyed by the new fashion.
A local celebrity, Alperon once allowed a TV crew into his home, where he and his wife, a stylish blonde with a Ph.D. in philosophy, were interviewed by a top model. Afterward, the interviewer, Yael Goldman, remarked soberly, "You see The Sopranos, and it sounds good thinking that some charming [Mafioso] will walk you into the sunset. But in reality, they're quite frightening." And that was with Alperon on his best behavior.
With so many enemies, why didn't Alperon drive to court on Monday with some of his many henchmen? Former deputy police commissioner Yitzhak Aharonovtich told the Jerusalem Post that Alperon was "the type of criminal who believes in his own power. He paid for that belief with his life."
Several months ago, a television reporter challenged Tel Aviv residents to say on camera, "I'm not afraid of Alperon," and nobody took the dare. Even today, with its cement-fisted leader gone, the Alperon family still inspires terror in Tel Aviv, especially now that a new round of gang warfare is about to get under way.
With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv