Gangland killing shows Israel's coming of age

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The Independent Online
THE WEEK of mourning was coming to a close yesterday at Shipody Ha Tikva, said to be the best Oriental restaurant in south Tel Aviv, just along from the busy souk.

But still, they chopped the goose livers, and prepared the Yemenite soup in solemn silence, rebuffing all questions about their former patron. The signed photographs lining the walls showed he liked to mix with the rich and powerful. There was Mohamed Ali, Ariel Sharon, and a long array of smiling stars enjoying Shipody Ha Tikva's special ambience.

But the restaurant was respectfully, perhaps fearfully, hiding all clues about Yekheskiel Aslan: exactly who he was and how he came to die aged 46, a 'moll' at his side, at 1.30am in a hail of bullets, just a few streets away.

Aslan has been called the 'godfather' of Tel Aviv, and his gangster friends a mafia. But such talk is scoffed at in the streets of Ha Tikva, a sprawling working-class suburb. Here few say a word - at least in public - against their favourite son, whom they prefer to call their Robin Hood. The memorial black posters along the street and plastering the boards of the small synagogue show the respect paid by his own people, who all turned out for the funeral.

'All the souk closed down when he died,' said a fruit stall owner. 'He was a good man. He helped the people here,' said another, rubbing his fingers with an imaginary wad of notes. He added, with a twinkle: 'Any dead man is a good man - no? What he did elsewhere we know nothing of.'

The assassination of Aslan by a professional gunman, now hunted by police, has thrown new light on Israel's gangland crime and on the tentacles it spreads to capitals around the world. It has also diverted attention - albeit briefly - from the daily bloodshed of the Palestinian conflict.

The early Zionist poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik, wrote that Israel would have matured as a nation when it produced its own criminals. 'You could say that these events, at least, show we are normal,' said Robert Rosenberg, an Israeli author of mystery novels.

Aslan was born in Iraq, to middle-class Jewish parents who, like hundreds of thousands of Sephardi Jews of Oriental origin emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s, living at first in transit camps. Many Iraqi immigrants came to Ha Tikva, along with Yemenites and Moroccans.

These new immigrants created an instant underclass, often excluded by the Ashkenazi - or East European - Jewish establishment. Breaking the law - to avoid taxes, smuggle goods, pimp, or operate a black market during the ration years of the 1950s - was part of life in the back streets.

The likes of Aslan were rejected by the Israeli army, and ended up forming gangs to find their own prestige on the fringes of society.

By the late 1970s police had drawn up a list of 11 so-called mafia figures, and Aslan's name was on it, although little was ever proven against him. It was not until the 1980s that the international connections began to form, when Israel used its favoured policy of 'deportation' to remove the unwanted. Police got rid of many leading gang members by offering them deals to leave the country for Europe and the US, thus setting up a ready-made network for the mobsters back home.

When the drug trade boomed after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, these links became invaluable for Aslan and his cohorts. He was reported to be heavily involved in the drug trade although, again, police were unable to gain his conviction in court. He had restaurants and clubs in several drug capitals, including Antwerp, Frankfurt and Los Angeles.

As the mourning period ends, police in Tel Aviv are nervously awaiting revenge killings. 'They fear an all-out gang war. Nobody knows what might happen next,' said Chaul Peretz, crime reporter on the newspaper Yediot Ahronot. The police take no solace in the notion that Aslan's death shows Israel is maturing as a nation.