When an explosion goes off on a busy Israeli street these days, it seems as likely to be a mob hit as a Palestinian attack.
Rival underworld gangs are waging bloody battles for control of gambling and protection rackets, targeting each other with bullets, bombs and anti-tank missiles.
Organized crime, long overshadowed by the Arab-Israeli conflict, has become such a part of everyday life that Israel has its own “Sopranos”-style TV series, “The Arbitrator,” in which even synagogues are no refuge from hit men.
The mob wars have killed dozens of gangsters and at least eight bystanders in the last three years, and exposed law enforcement officers in scandalous complicity.
“Organized crime has always been there, it’s just that now the measures have gotten harsher,” said Yossi Sedbon, a former police commander who spent years tracking the mafia. “This is something that should worry the police and the public.”
Most Israelis continue to be more concerned about potential Palestinian violence, which includes daily rocket barrages on towns next to Gaza and bloody bus bombings with dozens of dead — far more serious than the gang wars.
But criminal violence has several times turned city streets and upscale neighborhoods into battlegrounds.
In a single day in June, for example, the media reported that a reputed mobster — a former soldier in an elite army unit — was killed by an explosion while riding his motorcycle; a large bomb was defused under the car seat of a gangster’s son; and the courts announced increased security for judges threatened by criminals.
Policemen have been caught feeding information to the mob and smuggling drugs from Egypt. A bodyguard of former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres allegedly moonlighted as a hit man for a crime family.
In 1999, policeman Tzahi Ben-Or carried out a mob execution of a patient in a Tel Aviv hospital. He turned state’s witness, then fled to Mexico where he was shot dead in 2004.
Dozens of major crime families
In February, Moshe Karadi was forced to resign as national police chief after a government commission said he ignored ties between senior officers and underworld figures involved in the Ben-Or affair. Karadi insisted he was blameless and that he resigned to “set a personal example.”
Police officials, speaking on condition on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said a dozen major crime families operate in Israel, and are as ethnically diverse as the country’s population. Arab and Jewish crime families are known to work together trafficking drugs.
In the past, rival families would settle their scores quietly. But as the pot gets richer, they are getting bolder, taking more risks and posing a greater threat to public safety. Most crime bosses now travel with bodyguards in armored vehicles.
The official police Web site boasts a 6.9 percent drop in organized crime cases last year, but experts warn the decline may be due to a greater reluctance to complain as the level of violence increases. The figures also say murders were up by 12 percent and attempted murders by 37 percent in 2006. Police say organized crime activity is a major factor in the increase.
In a brazen daylight incident in May, a three-man hit team fought a gun battle in Tel Aviv with a police unit that had the gangsters under surveillance. The police intercepted them as they made their way to kill a rival crime boss, Nissim Alperon. One policeman was seriously wounded, and one gunman was killed.
The media, which report the crime wave with relish, were quick to note that Alperon, like the fictional Tony Soprano seen on TV screens, has pet ducks and was tending them at the time of the shootout. It was the ninth assassination attempt he has survived.
This particular round of violence was sparked, oddly enough, by a turf war between the Alperons and the rival Abarjil family over bottle-recycling.
Although gambling, drugs and prostitution are the big money-spinners, those 5-cent empties add up to a $5 million-a-year industry, according to estimates by police and environmental groups.
Police say criminals sell restaurants protection in exchange for empties, which leave no paper trail and offer crime families a relatively legitimate source of income.
The Alperons and Abarjils have gotten into several publicized fights over the bottle business. Video surveillance cameras captured Arieh Alperon, Nissim’s brother, head-butting alleged mobster Itzik Abarjil, bloodying his face.
The bottle war has caught the eye of Israel’s favorite TV satire show, “Wonderful Country.” A skit shows an actor impersonating an Alperon brother in what looks like an ad promoting recycling — until the car trunk opens to reveal a man bound and gagged amid piles of empties.