Israel's brazen gang war

His name rhymed with Al Capone and he came to a bad end behind the wheel of a rented white Volkswagen.

Until the moment a bomb planted on his car exploded on a Tel Aviv street, mob boss Yaakov Alperon was living large. He and his Carmela Soprano-blond wife, Ahuva, were media darlings who even took part in a 2006 reality show in which a famous Israeli model moved in with their family.

After her husband's assassination in November, a tearful Ahuva went on Israeli television to plead for an end to the violence. "I'm left with seven orphans," she said. "I beg you, don't look for revenge."

But as he stood over his father's grave, one of her sons appeared to have vengeance on his mind: "I will send back that person to God," he said. "He won't have a grave because I'll cut off his hands, head and body."

Israelis are fond of saying they "live in a rough neighborhood." But chances are they aren't talking about what's been happening recently in this country of 7 million.

An over-the-top gang war between Israeli crime families, complete with daylight bombings, bystander deaths and the occasional rocket attack, has laid bare the shortcomings of the country's formidable security apparatus.

"In many respects we are losing the battle," said Menachem Amir, a criminology professor at Hebrew University.

Organized crime blossomed here in the 1980s and '90s while security forces were focused on Palestinian terrorist threats. By the time Israeli authorities truly began to grapple with the problem a few years ago, they faced a sophisticated global network of gambling, prostitution and drug trafficking, with Los Angeles as one of its hubs.

Court documents and interviews with Israeli law enforcement officials give glimpses of a criminal tapestry that includes an assassination in Encino, alliances with violent L.A. gangs and the establishment of an Israeli-directed drug pipeline from Europe straight to Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Israeli law enforcement officials admit they've been caught flat-footed and are scrambling to catch up, using increased surveillance, tougher laws and partnerships with more experienced agencies in the U.S. and Europe.

"We're about five years behind the criminals," said Arye Livneh, head of the government's newly created witness protection program, which won't even begin protecting prospective mob informants until next summer. "This is a tiny place. It's not easy to hide someone in Israel."

Israel is a heavily militarized country where weapons flow freely. While the intelligence agencies and army vigilantly watch the borders for Palestinians intent on carrying out attacks, Israeli criminals use the country's tightknit social connections to steal guns, explosives and antitank missiles from the army.

"Why would you bother smuggling weapons into Israel?" Amir said. "Everybody has weapons."

The country's mandatory military service also produces a uniquely trained recruiting pool for the mafia. Amir Mulner, a reputed mob boss and explosives expert, reportedly learned his lethal skills in the army.

"A lot of Israelis, they get out of the army and they don't have a job. They're for hire," said Amir, the criminology professor.

Now the Israelis, with help from their American counterparts, say they're gaining ground. In August, police in Jerusalem arrested reputed mob boss Itzhak "Big Friend" Abergil and his brother Meir on drug-trafficking and other racketeering charges, filed by the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. The pair await extradition to the States for trial.

Israeli officials hail the Abergil case as proof that they're making strides in dealing with local mafiosi, and developing sophisticated global approaches to combat sophisticated global criminals.

"These cases require a lot more work and a lot more creativity," said Gal Levertov, director of the department of international affairs in the Israeli state attorney's office. "We're trying to cope with this new global phenomenon."

The Abergil trial should be the latest test for a legal template established in the 2006 prosecution of former ecstasy drug kingpin Zeev Rosenstein. In a precedent-setting arrangement, Rosenstein was charged in America, arrested in Israel and extradited, sentenced to 12 years in prison, then shipped back to Israel to serve his time.

After Rosenstein's arrest, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told reporters that the country's law enforcement agencies were beginning to turn the tide against the mafia.

"This is a long-term battle that requires plenty of patience," Rosenfeld said at the time. "It won't be decided by knockout but rather by points."

But today, the growing confidence and capability of the Israeli police are being badly undermined by their inability to contain a series of violent feuds between the top families -- many of them tightknit clans of Arab Jews who emigrated here from Egypt and Morocco. The string of public shootings, bombings and rocket attacks has killed and wounded dozens of bystanders.

One local law enforcement official, speaking off the record because the investigation was continuing, said Alperon's assassination appeared to be the work of Mulner, the explosives expert, who reportedly took control of many of Rosenstein's operations.

Alperon and Mulner have been locked in a personal dispute for years; in 2006, a meeting between the two to arbitrate a turf dispute ended with Alperon stabbing Mulner in the neck, according to local crime reporters.

Police have yet to charge anyone with Alperon's killing, but they arrested Mulner shortly afterward on a relatively minor change, possibly to get him off the streets and blunt the cycle of retaliation.

The Abergils, meanwhile, have waged a turf war with the Abutbul family, according to police and local journalists. The prize at stake: control of drug trafficking and gambling operations in Israel, Europe and the U.S.

Itzhak Abergil's brother Yaacov was gunned down in front of his family in June 2002. Two months later, Felix Abutbul, known to police here as one of the original Israeli godfathers, was shot to death outside a casino he owned in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.

Abutbul's children have carried on the feud, according to several Israeli crime reporters.

In July, Charlie Abutbul was seriously wounded when assassins opened fire on a restaurant he owned.

Several times in recent years, Israeli hit men have resorted to using shoulder-mounted antitank missiles to attack the armored cars of mob bosses.

"That's one of the most worrisome things about these killings in Israel -- they are not only criminal, they are sloppy and lots of other people get victimized," said Levertov, of the state attorney's office.

Public outcry against the mobsters and the seemingly overmatched police force reached a peak in July. Unidentified gunmen opened fire on an Abergil family associate at a beachside restaurant in Netanya, killing a young mother in front of her family.

"For a long time now, methodical and familial crime has been one of the most organized institutions in the country," said a November editorial in the daily newspaper Haaretz. "The enforcement agencies, by contrast, are lagging behind."

Israel's size -- smaller than New Hampshire -- greatly hinders one of the key aspects of any organized crime prosecution, inducing mid-level mafiosi to turn informant and testify against their bosses. Put simply, Israeli police have been unable to protect their witnesses, and several cases have fallen apart when witnesses either recanted their testimony or were killed.

In December 2005, convicted murderer Yoni Alzam was poisoned in his prison cell the day before he was to testify in a mafia trial.

"If someone gives testimony, the day afterward they will be killed with their family," said Livneh, head of the nascent witness protection department. "Israel is very good at fighting terror. We have to reach the same level of ability in fighting crime families. The danger is the same."

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem Bureau and Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem and Joe Mozingo in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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