alperon car bomb 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
There are few things more dangerous in the underworld scene than a war over honor. Unlike battles for control over business (restaurants, gambling houses, the right to charge "protection money," extortion rackets and fronts for money laundering) - or struggles to establish the dominance of one crime family over another in a set geographical zone (turf wars), wars over honor are no-holds-barred affairs, waged by bitter criminal enemies hell-bent on wiping each other off the map.
Revenge and pride, rather than profit, guide the combatants engaged in an honor war, who think nothing of sending "soldiers" on motorcycles to open fire indiscriminately on targets, or of using explosives in urban areas. This is bad news for innocent civilians, at risk of being caught in the crossfire.
"If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone," said Michael Corleone in The Godfather 2, expressing the mind-set of the culprit behind last month's bloody car bombing in the heart of north Tel Aviv, which eliminated Ya'acov Alperon, 53, patriarch of the last of the old Sicilian-style Israeli families.
Killing Alperon was not much of a logistical challenge. He took virtually none of the security measures others in his position rely on, such as a team of bodyguards or traveling in bulletproof vehicles, relying merely on his terrifying reputation for deterrence.
It was the mere audaciousness of the act - using a car bomb to remove one of the country's most powerful mafia chiefs - that has the police in a state of heightened alert. And few things trouble the police more than blood feuds over honor.
PROF. MENAHEM Amir, of the Hebrew University's Criminology Institute, is one of the few bona fide specialists on the local mafia outside of the police. He was one of the first to declare decades ago the existence of organized crime here (and at the time MK Ehud Olmert was among the few politicians to take up the cause).
But Amir got a little too close to the world he studied, facing death threats from a mobster after publishing a paper on the workings of mafia families, and being forced to leave the country for a while until he felt safe enough to return.
"There are godfathers in Israel," Amir affirmed during a conference on threats to quality government in June. They run mafia-style crime families and organizations, manage hierarchical structures and have armed soldiers at their disposal waiting for commands, he warned.
"For them, honor and emotions are more important than control over assets, because it is your honor that determines your place on the ladder of crime families. And the ranking, in turn, has economic ramifications," Amir added in November, during a briefing to The Jerusalem Post following the Alperon assassination. Amir does not doubt that the Alperon hit was part of an honor war.
A rival mobster who felt his honor was trampled on by Alperon is almost certainly behind the attack, he said.
Amir's analysis is shared by former Israel Police head of investigations Moshe Mizrahi, who issued a dire warning in a statement to the Post following the Alperon hit. "My big fear is that because this is a major blood feud, mobsters will not take civilians into consideration. They won't care about the consequences of what they do," he said.
Mizrahi is kept awake at night by scenarios in which cities could be rocked by car bombs and other explosives as part of the fallout from the hit, after an initially quiet period, he said.
SO WHAT is being done by law enforcers to avert a wave of criminal terrorism?
In recent weeks, police have taken round-the-clock measures to avoid the kind of fallout envisaged by Mizrahi.
Nine days after Alperon's slaying, police arrested a man whose name has often been mentioned as a suspect behind the killing. Amir Mulner - a senior Ramat Gan-based mob figure and an explosives expert with a score to keep with Alperon - and 16 other suspects were taken into custody following a raid on a Ramat Gan apartment.
In January 2006, Mulner attended a mafia summit at the Daniel Hotel in Herzliya. The conference went sour after Alperon's son, Dror, who was waiting outside, heard shouts. He rushed in, sensing his father was in danger, and did not hesitate to stab Mulner in the neck. Mulner's retaliation seemed inevitable.
One month later, Mulner was arrested near Baka al-Gharbiya when bombs were found in his possession. A subsequent investigation found that he had linked up with Arab crime figures to acquire explosive devices. Speculation was rife that Alperon was the intended target.
Officially, police have not linked Mulner's recent arrest to the Alperon hit. The main aim seems to be to keep Mulner in custody at all costs. Last week, police launched a determined court battle to keep Mulner in custody, convincing the Tel Aviv District Court to overturn a decision by the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court to release him under house arrest. Secret police intelligence materials were shown to the court as part of that effort.
On Wednesday, the Tel Aviv district attorney charged Mulner and nine other suspects with possession of a semi-automatic 7.65 millimeter Beretta pistol with a silencer and conspiracy to commit a crime. The prosecutors requested that the court keep the suspects in custody until the end of legal proceedings.
"There is no need to add a thing on the danger posed by possession of a loaded gun with a silencer by criminals," the prosecution told the court on Wednesday, adding that the "defendants intended to use the gun in a lethal manner, which is the only possible explanation for placing a silencer on the barrel."
"The conspirators hid the gun... with an intention to commit a crime or injustice or to allow someone else to carry out a crime or injustice," the charge sheet stated.
This week, police also arrested the man they believe is most likely to be linked to a future Alperon revenge attack, Nissim Alperon, brother of the late Ya'acov. Detectives raided a Ramat Gan cafe and arrested Alperon and 18 other men, recovering a gun from a moped belonging to one of the suspects.
What was the purpose of this apparent mafia meeting? Police will not say, mentioning only a conspiracy to commit a crime.
A Tel Aviv police source said he did not know whether Alperon and the suspects were plotting a revenge attack when police pounced on their meeting. During a custody hearing for Alperon and nine suspects on Monday, Judge Tzion Kapah said his decision to keep Alperon in custody for another week "would not deal with the content of the conspiracy to avoid inflaming passions. It is possible, God forbid, to cause a needless additional spilling of blood."
Police appear to have bought a little more time, as they work to stop an honor war from spiralling out of control.