Gangland violence in Israel. A mark of progress?
A beeper buzzed on the newsdesk of the Jerusalem bureau with a stark message in Hebrew: “Preliminary report – blast on bus on Namir Road in Tel Aviv”.
The information came from the Zaka emergency services, whose ultra-Orthodox Jewish volunteers were usually the first on the scene of suicide bombings on Israeli commuter buses during a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. Their job: to collect body parts for burial.
But it’s been nine months since a Palestinian suicide bomber last struck in Israel and four years since a bus was blown up.
Thankfully, Zaka got it wrong.
It was a car that exploded, and the driver killed in the blast was a reputed mafia kingpin, Yaakov (The Don) Alperon, a colourful figure in a signature hat whose family is locked in conflict with a string of rivals. Alperon, who has served several prison terms, had survived a number of attempts on his life.
His luck ran out in a white, rental car on a busy Tel Aviv road after he left a court where his son had just been indicted for alleged extortion and assault. And while Israelis could breathe a sigh of relief that suicide bombings had not returned to their streets, police
swiftly cautioned that Alperon’s death could lead to a fierce mob war that could endanger “civilians”.
Mobsters largely used to kill only their own in Israel. But more and more, bystanders are getting caught in the crossfire.
Two passersby were wounded in the blast that killed Alperon and eight bystanders have died over the past three years in bombings and shootings involving gangsters. Tales of alleged crime lords and their murky dealings on the fringes of politics and Israeli business are regular features of Israel’s front pages these days, easily competing for space with a conflict with the Palestinians that is no longer as bloody as a few years ago.
With such gangland violence fast becoming routine, perhaps the words of Chaim Nachman Bialik, (1873-1934), regarded by Israel as its national poet, have come true. Bialik, who lived in British-ruled Palestine and did not witness the establishment of the Jewish state there in 1948, once wrote: “We will be a normal state when we have the first Hebrew prostitute, the first Hebrew thief and the first Hebrew policeman.”