TEL AVIV—In the pre-dawn hours of May 13, Nissim Alperon, one of Israel’s most notorious alleged gangsters, and a small army of men found themselves at the entrance to the Palestinian city of Qalqilya in the West Bank waiting for the return of a stolen horse. With each passing hour Alperon grew restless, until he decided to send in a few of his associates to get the animal back.
A week earlier, Alperon had woken up to find that his prized Arabian mount had been stolen from his ranch in the central Israeli city of Petach Tikva. The horse, valued at some $100,000, was used for riding, breeding, and shows. But the real value was sentimental—Alperon had raised it nearly since birth, seven years prior, as if it were his child. More to the point, who would be brazen (and stupid) enough to steal from Alperon?
One of 11 brothers and sisters, Nissim Alperon, 65, is a senior member of the eponymous crime family long considered the most powerful and lethal in Israel. Led by Nissim’s brother, Yaakov—the “Israeli Don Corleone”—the Alperons came to dominate the Israeli underworld for three decades starting in the 1970s, running extortion rackets and gambling rings, recycling schemes and “grey-market” loan operations. Business was good, but dangerous.
Nissim, now gaunt and balding with a distinctive, gravelly voice, is a veteran of four jail terms and has survived roughly 11 assassination attempts. His brother Yaakov’s luck ran out in November 2008, when a remote-controlled bomb blew up under his rental car in a busy Tel Aviv intersection, killing him and injuring three innocent passersby.
The Alperon family’s fortunes subsequently declined as young upstarts—many of whom were former "soldiers" in the family—began chipping away at their turf. But the Alperon name still resonates, the subject of endless media fascination and public fear—which is what provided the first lead in the case of the stolen stallion.
WHO YOU GONNA CALL?
Beyond one gangster’s quest to retrieve his horse, this incident helped highlight some significant geopolitical issues. The close security ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have been, in recent years, the most important and successful aspect of the entire moribund “peace process.” The relationship was always conceived as a way to shift the burden for managing and policing the Palestinian population off of Israel’s back and onto Palestinian officials, with the Palestinians' hopes for an independent state as the core incentive.
That vision is now in grave danger as the new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moves toward annexing wide swathes of West Bank territory, with what’s likely to be virtual carte blanche from the Trump administration under the terms of its “Deal of the Century.” The PA has reacted by announcing that all cooperation, including on security, will end.
The incident with Alperon suggests just how volatile that new reality could become.
Almost immediately Nissim Alperon and his associates understood that the horse, a brown stallion named “Tony,” was likely taken by Palestinians because, one, the ranch is close to the West Bank, and two, only Palestinians would be so ignorant of Alperon infamy that they'd abscond with an Alperon stallion.
“If a horse is stolen from the Petach Tikva area it’s hard to believe Israelis would have done it, considering they know who owns it, because at the end it’ll be found. It’s not a small animal that can be disappeared,” says Shalom Zohar, a friend of Alperon’s who would play a crucial role in the search. Palestinians might not have known who owned the horse, Zohar suggested, or perhaps they simply didn’t know enough to care.
Arabian horses are big business. According to half a dozen Israeli riders, trainers and breeders interviewed by The Daily Beast, Tony’s alleged worth wasn’t out of the ordinary given the correct bloodlines and physical attributes. Arabians are mostly used as show horses, taking part in competitions both in Israel and abroad—after which, if victorious, their price goes up when put out to stud.
Most of those interviewed highlighted the local popularity of Arabians, with one outlining a brisk (illegal) trade between Israelis and Palestinians for all manner of horses, including to the Gaza Strip. Another breeder said, almost off-hand, that Israeli horse farms have been known to raise Arabians for export to affluent Gulf countries that have no official ties to Israel. (They are sent via third countries in Europe or neighboring Jordan.) At least one trainer recalled the Alperon family’s horse infatuation going back many years, with their horses let out to roam free in open farmland off a highway in central Israel.
WHO DONE IT?
For Nissim Alperon, it was one thing to surmise that his Tony was in the West Bank, quite another to locate him. He turned to Zohar for help.
Zohar is a businessman from a settlement in the northern West Bank, and among his various interests is a factory that makes trailers, which employs Palestinian laborers. “There’s strong interactions with them,” Zohar said. “In our industrial zone we sit down together, drink, eat, and get to know each other. That’s what created the connection.”
Zohar leveraged these relationships, sending out little video clips of the horse via WhatsApp to all the Palestinians he knew. It worked. A few of his Palestinian workers came back with a video making the rounds on Palestinian social media that showed Tony prancing around a piece of recognizable land. It was in Qalqilya, a Palestinian city of 40,000 people in the central West Bank, on a spit of land that juts into Israel adjacent to the pre-1967 armistice line. It is walled in on three sides by Israel’s security barrier.
Zohar went on a reconnaissance mission alone to the spot he’d identified inside Qalqilya. The horse wasn’t there, but via local contacts he was able to track down the owner of the land—who denied everything.
Zohar, who speaks fluent Arabic, then went up a notch, contacting senior political and security officials in the PA, asking them to retrieve the horse from the thief—which they did. But that was the easy part. The problem was to get the animal out of Qalqilya.
As Zohar tells it, “The PA isn’t too happy to work directly with Israeli civilians." Security communication usually is done directly with the Israeli army through the official Israeli-Palestinian coordination channels and units.
Which begged the question why the Israeli authorities weren’t notified about the theft in the first place.
Zohar suggests it just wasn't the kind of thing Israel's military and security establishment would focus on. “I don’t think the army or police will start running around looking for your animal.”
Alperon had his own strategy—which brought him and over 50 of his men (“good friends of Nissim,” as Zohar described them), to the outskirts of Qalqilya in the middle of the night, waiting for the PA police to bring out the horse.
For five hours the Israeli gangsters cooled their heels, but the Palestinians tarried. Perhaps the local officers who retrieved the horse had second thoughts about doing the bidding of an Israeli civilian; perhaps they were put off by the (not-so-subtle) show of force that landed a battalion of Israelis right at the doorstep to their city. No guns were drawn, yet based on the characters involved no one likely doubted that the Israelis were armed. Whatever the reason for the delay, it was at this point that Alperon lost patience.
Alperon sent in eight of his men in two cars led by Zohar, just after the suhur pre-dawn meal marking the start of the day’s fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The small alien convoy with bright yellow Israeli license plates drove right up to the local Palestinian police station—which is where and when things started to get really dicey.
SHOWDOWN AT THE QALQILYA CORRAL
Local residents taking in the air after the Ramadan breakfast noticed the Israelis, and a crowd of several dozen began forming. Even Zohar, long used to traveling inside Palestinian areas of the West Bank, grew concerned —all the more so because the Alperon associates he had with him weren’t used to finding themselves in the midst of an angry mob in the middle of a Palestinian city. Their cars were surrounded. Violence was in the offing. “You knew things might explode,” Zohar told The Daily Beast.
That's when the PA security forces stepped in, a little like the marshall in an old Western movie walking into the middle of a gunfight.
A senior Palestinian officer arrived on the scene, spoke quietly to Zohar, and ordered his forces to move the crowd back and away from the Israelis. The Palestinian officer gave Zohar his personal assurance that the horse would be delivered straight to him—but he and Alperon’s men had to leave... Now.
In Zohar’s telling, this is also the moment where he received a call from the Israeli military, essentially pleading with him to do exactly that. “Don’t worry, they’ll get you the horse,” Zohar recalled the Israeli officer telling him.
An Israeli army spokesman told The Daily Beast: “At no point were we involved. This was a private initiative by the businessman,” that is, Zohar. But standard operating procedure suggests that, as Zohar claims, the Israeli military was likely at least monitoring developments and in contact with their Palestinian counterparts.
Zohar did as he was told, rejoining Alperon and the rest of the men at the entrance to Qalqilya. The PA police sent along candies and knafeh, a traditional sweet. Video from the surreal scene shows Nissim Alperon, small coffee cup in hand, watching as a band of Palestinian police vehicles, red-white-and-blue lights glaring, drives toward him. With them was his beloved Tony.
While unusual due to the shady characters involved and the horse thievery, the actions of the PA security forces that night weren’t out of the ordinary.
Every year several hundred Israeli citizens go astray in PA-controlled areas of the West Bank. In nearly every instance it’s the Palestinian security forces that safely retrieve them. But the memory of the October 2000 lynching of two Israeli reservists near Ramallah, at the start of the Second Intifada, still looms large in the minds of most Israelis. Every localized incident—like the Alperon affair the other week—holds within it the potential to break bad and turn into a major strategic crisis.
Ensuring the safety of wayward Israelis is only one aspect of Israeli-Palestinian security coordination, which also includes dialogue and intelligence-sharing, counterterrorism, deconfliction during Israeli military raids into Palestinian cities and villages, access and movement for PA security forces, and riot control. These ties have helped maintain stability in the West Bank for over a decade.
Yet Netanyahu’s stated intention to annex large parts of the West Bank, perhaps as early as July, has raised tensions in the region. In a bid to push back against Israel’s plans, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week declared that he was no longer bound by past peace agreements—including on the vital issue of security. In recent days the PA announced the suspension of security coordination; dialogue and the official military coordination mechanism between the two sides reportedly have been impacted already.
Palestinian leaders are adamant that some functions—including protecting Israeli civilians—will continue. “We won’t allow lawlessness and chaos on our streets. We will maintain public order and the rule of law,” Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat told foreign journalists last Thursday. “If an Israeli gets into a car accident near [Erekat’s home city] Jericho, will that mean we just watch him die? No. Like we’ve done in the past, if an Israeli gets lost in Jericho, I will take him back.”
Good news perhaps for the next Nissim Alperon and Shalom Zohar. Yet Israeli security officials are concerned about increased violence in the West Bank due to the vacuum created by the erosion of the security relationship. The chances of friction between Israeli and Palestinian forces, an isolated event ballooning into casualties, or mass demonstrations have all gone up.
For now, however, Alperon has his horse back and a standoff between Palestinian security forces and Israeli gangsters was avoided. “The PA police did their work,” Zohar told The Daily Beast. “Congratulations to them.”