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Six hundred criminals. That is the rough estimate of a senior Israel Police officer concerning the number of members - both commanders and soldiers - in the family gangs known as "crime organizations." That is equal to one army battalion, divided into several companies and platoons that fight each other, declare truces and execute preemptive strikes and retaliatory acts, of which Ya'akov Alperon, the crime boss murdered this week, will not be the last fatality. A battalion whose internal struggle, admits Police Commissioner David Cohen, "claims the lives of innocent citizens and affects the public's sense of security." This is the regular battalion; a reserve battalion of similar size is currently incarcerated in local jails.

Confronting these few hundred are 30,000 members of the Israel Police, whose number amounts to three to five army divisions. Although the police have many other missions and goals aside from dealing with crime organizations, even after deducting the manpower allotted to other tasks, there still remains a balance of forces that should allow the police to vanquish the mob adversary.

Israel's criminals draw heavily on the weapons, explosives and training they receive in the Israel Defense Forces. Several former Engineering Corps officers (including former commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki, and senior officers Aharon Franco and Nissim Mor) joined the police force, while others joined the opposite side (including Amir Mulner). Following police intervention, Dror Alperon, the son of murdered crime boss Ya'akov Alperon, was transferred from the Paratroops to an administrative position.

In the past year, the deputy head of the police Investigations and Intelligence Branch, Brig.-Gen. David Mansour, has led a team that is trying to crack the riddle of the procurement and use of explosives like those that killed Alperon this week. The police are not lying when they say they are making slow but steady progress in their ability to fight the gangs. The 82 kilograms of heroin seized a week ago by the Southern District's Magen unit on the Jordanian border will deprive some crime organization of $45 million in illegal profits, and without blood-drenched headlines. But then the criminals get uptight and cars blow up because the police are reducing the gangs' living space.

The police are upset about the media's excesses in covering these "folk heroes," whether it be Roni Ron (accused of killing his four-year old granddaughter, Rose) or Alperon. The latter's funeral procession was reminiscent of a parting from a beloved acquaintance, who in his lifetime provided much fodder for the media.

The refusal on the part of some of Israel's elected representatives to beef up the police, for fear that it will expose their own criminality, can be added to the public's fear of a mortal infringement of its rights. When it mobilizes all its strength, by governmental fiat and with society's backing, the police can launch a one-time operation, such as evacuating the settlers from Gaza. In a prosaic, everyday reality, with the tools available to it today, the police will collapse or neglect its additional duties, which include fighting terrorism and preserving public order. There are other tools available, but they are locked up in a box that society avoids opening: the Defense (Emergency) Regulations and the Terrorism Prevention Ordinance.

'Security' vs. 'criminal'

A terrorist organization is defined by law as a group of people who perpetrate acts of violence that are liable to cause death or injury, or who threaten to perpetrate such violent acts. But that definition fails to make a clear-cut distinction between "security" and "criminal." There is the security of the state and there is the security of the public. In addition, there is the element of motivation: family honor, love of homeland, eradication of traitors, greed. For organized crime gangs to be considered terrorist organizations, the State of Israel need only make this comparison. So far, it hasn't.

That idea was, however, raised briefly in internal police discussions following the attempt to assassinate crime boss Ze'ev Rosenstein five years ago on Tel Aviv's Yehuda Halevi Street, in which Rosenstein was spared but three passersby were killed. The public security minister at the time was Gideon Ezra, formerly with the Shin Bet security service who is well-versed in the service's methods. According to an officer who took part in the discussions, the legal advisers quickly vetoed the suggestion that organized crime be equated with terrorism, on the assumption that it would anyway be struck down by the High Court of Justice. The freedoms of movement, association and expression of the Alperons and the Abergils were considered more important than the right to life of innocent passersby.

As a partial substitute, under the initiative of police Maj.-Gen. Amihai Shay, then-commander of the National Unit for the Investigation of Serious and International Crime, the gang bosses were stripped of their armed bodyguards and armored vehicles. If they are caught bearing arms, they will be accused of committing a felony. Instead, they hire guards from licensed companies - but this does not deter motorcyclist assassins or bomb planters.

In a later decision, the High Court (in Ezra Stein vs. Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi, in 2006), in a panel under then-Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, provided the foundation for a justification to add the crime gangs to the list that includes members of Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaida and Kach/Kahane Lives. All that is required is for the government and the attorney general to will it. For that to happen, though - as in the case of deciding whether to launch a big operation in Gaza, which is an entirely a different context - apparently there has to be a mass killing of civilians of the type that could result from the Alperon slaying, if it is avenged with criminal negligence to the point of malice.

It is impossible to completely uproot the gangs. If their heads are lopped off, new ones will grow in their place, in the form of the dead bosses' deputies or their sons, who are the heirs of family businesses.

The hotheads who clashed with Central Police Unit detectives in the 1990s are now approaching middle age; the detectives are now unit heads. The average age of a police superintendent is 43, of a chief superintendent, 47. The police are not astonished about the murder of veteran criminals like Alperon - after all, that is an occupational hazard. What surprises them is his lifespan, which was extended in part thanks to police warnings and police efforts to prevent assassination attempts on him over the years.

Beefing up police

The head of the Israel Prisons Service, Benny Kaniak, this week presented the government with a plan for total control over the telephone links between prisoners and the outside world. The IPS will now issue a tender among the phone companies for installing a system that will include biometric identification, an announcement to the prisoner's interlocutor that "the call is from Hasharon Prison," a prohibition on call-forwarding and complete knowledge of the conversation's content. The costs of this technology will be borne by the prisoners themselves, by means of a meter. Two prisons, Ramon in the south and Ayalon in the center, already have separate wings for "heavy" criminals, including the heads of underground organizations. In the old dispute between two schools of thought in the IPS - security vs. rehabilitation - Kaniak leans toward the former.

Despite the IPS' tougher posture under Kaniak, the Abergil brothers and others are bound to miss him: They are furious over the intention to extradite them to the law-enforcement authorities in the United States. They will not get reverential treatment from the warders and prisoners in an American prison. The FBI's organized-crime unit operates in three geographically defined arenas, depending on the origin (or transit station) of the criminal: Italy/Sicily, Russia and the Middle East, and Africa (with the emphasis on Nigeria) and Asia. According to FBI data, today there are some 1,000 classic Mafioso with an Italian background, of whom 200 are behind bars.

The FBI deals with federal crime and leaves the bulk of law enforcement to the local police forces. For the same thing to happen in Israel, there have to be stronger municipal police forces to handle bicycle thieves and to enforce public order, leaving the national police force to combat serious crime.

Lahav 433, a sort of umbrella for various investigative units, was set up a year ago with the idea that it would be under the direct command of the commissioner, instead of under the head of the Investigations and Intelligence Branch, for a trial run. Meanwhile, however, Lahav commander Maj.-Gen. Yoav Segalowitz has been appointed as head of investigations, and Brig.-Gen. Y., the commander of the Police Special Anti-Terror Unit (Yamam), will be replacing him. The new commander will likely augment the role of the Yamam in the confrontation with the crime organizations. No successor has yet been found in the Yamam for Y., and the search for serious candidates has been extended to the IDF.

If this were a burning issue for Israeli society, a list focused on the imposition of law and order would be established for the upcoming elections. Until that happens, both criminals and passersby will continue to be blown up in the streets.