“Tell me, do the Israelis still care about the Alperons? They're nobodies now, nobody thinks of them anymore,”, the courtroom security guard with a large white knit kippa said to a row of photographers in a corridor at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court last Friday morning.
Downstairs mob princes Dror and Omer Alperon and a friend of theirs named Daniel Gedidian waited to be brought in for their remand extension on charges of attacking detectives who came to their Herzliya home to execute a drugs and firearms search warrant, an arrest for which they would be released an hour or so later on bond.
(Dror, (right) and Omer (center) Alperon in court in Tel Aviv on Friday. Photo: Ben Hartman)
As a video photographer and three stills photographer – all with the bad luck of being sent to work on a Friday morning, the de-facto beginning of the Israeli weekend – waited for the suspects to arrive, the security guard and a veteran Maariv photographer talked about how far the Alperonshad fallen in the hierarchy of Israeli organized crime.
The Alperon family, led by Dror's father Yaakov, was one of the more famous organized crime gangs in Israel, making millions annually through extortion, protection rackets, and the often bloody business of bottle recycling. The family took a heavy hit when Yaakov was killed by a remote-controlled car bomb four and a half years ago at a junction in north Tel Aviv – a hit linked to rival Amir Mulner, who has long eclipsed the Alperons in the city. Before then, Alperon was a legit Israeli celebrity, his family even the subject of a shortly-lived Israeli sitcom – something like an Israeli version of “Growing up Gotti”, for fans of the genre. The Alperons are still famous, but for the most part have only made the news recently whenever Dror has gotten arrested or jailed - most recently on an almost three year bid for extortion which ended in February – and following each failed attempt on the life of Dror's uncle, Nissim Alperon “the gangster with nine lives”, who escaped a car bomb in February, the 9th attempt on his life so far.
Though the Alperon name may not be what it once was, the Alperon boys still sported the typical court room presence of organized crime figures facing a judge. Across the corridor from the photographers, the Alperon entourage waited – a group of about a dozen young men, all seemingly cast from the same mold, each with the same shaved head, Hugo Boss shirt, shiny black Lacoste or Adidas sneakers, and designer jeans. Every member of the entourage was skinny, maybe 5' 8'' at most not all that physically intimidating – yet another reminder that you can never really know when someone is a normal “arse” (Israeli hoodlum) or a criminal arse. They continued to watch the photographers from the other side of the corridor, casting threatening glares, even as no one was bothering to take their pictures to begin with.
Dror's brother Elad also stalked the corridor – a pint-sized version of his late father - talking to his brother's lawyer and keeping his sunglasses on indoors as he told the photographers not to overdo it with the pictures.
It's a familiar theme at mafia court hearings. At each one I've been to, no crime reporters show up, though always a few photographers are forced to show up and get footage. On the one hand, cases like the Alperon hearing aren't major news, on the other hand, the reporters probably want to leave a distance between themselves and the mobsters' associates, who pack the courtroom benches and lurk the hallways before and after the hearings. Also in each case, associates will approach the photographers and use various levels of persuasive speech to convince them not to take pictures.
This happened at a hearing at the Ramle Magistrate's court in December, following the arrest of 16 members of the Taibe-based Abdel-Kader clan, one of the deadliest and most feared crime gangs in the Triangle and across Israel. As the photographers stood in a cluster on the courthouse steps (again no reporters present) an Arab Israeli man approached me and said “don't take any pictures of the women”, I asked why, and he said “because we're telling you not to.”
Unlike Elad Alperon, these instructions were made quietly, almost nonchalantly, by people seemingly used to not having to raise their voices to get things done. In hindsight, it's unclear who the man was, if he was a member of the Abdel-Kader clan, or just a local man waiting for a hearing and concerned about the modesty of Arab women ascending the courthouse steps. That said, one video photographer said to me “it's always like this, especially with those guys in Yaffo, whenever people from one of those families get arrested. It's not worth it, I'm going to get my camera broken for this?”
Inside the small Ramle courtroom, Radi Abdel-Kater, brother of boss Mabruk Abdel-Kader and Adi, son and second in command of Mabruk, sat in the docket laughing off the charges, which included extortion, drug dealing, gun running, tax evasion, and money laundering, among other charges. Across the aisle, a few associates sat, all of them young Arab guys in black shirts and jeans, all a good bit larger than the Alperon associates from Friday morning. Occasionally we made eye contact, but only briefly, though it made me highly aware of the lack of other crime reporters at the hearing.
While the Friday morning hearing gave a window into the usual color to be expected at an organized crime hearing, it also gave a glimpse into the way the new generation differed than their fathers. Though Dror, now balding quickly, looked older than his 25 years, both he and Omer joked and clowned around in the courtroom, by no means the tight-lipped Omerta types of old. Though Radi Abdel-Kader also spoke up before the courthouse cameras, saying that police were doing the bidding of their Umm al-Fahm based rivals the Hariri crime family, he wasn't acting like a clown and Adi stayed silent, with a confident grin across his face.
It made me think again about the criticism against the new generation of mobsters, the “princes” - sons of bosses like Dror Alperon, or Shay Shirazi (son of mobster Rico Shirazi). Unlike their fathers, most of whom grew up poor or at the very least anonymous, having to build a name on their own deeds, the new generation was born famous, from day one they were “sons of” (“benim shel”), the same as any number of Knesset MKs, journalists, and entertainers in Israel who got their start the same way. Also unlike their fathers, they can give off an air of being spoiled, hot-headed, and lacking a certain “honor” – to the extent that there is honor among thieves. The stereotype also holds that they lack the same level of street smarts as their fathers, meaning they can expect to be far easier prey for detectives as long as they stay in the game.
The feeling they give off, at least to one observing from the outside, is that they aren’t hungry like their fathers were, and while they may be reckless and violent, they might just not be smart enough to make it work for long.
That said, probably still not a good idea to take too many pictures.
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