The bold daylight slaying of a judge in a quiet Tel Aviv suburb has shocked Israelis and raised questions about a growing culture of violence in their country.

Tel Aviv District Court Judge Adi Azar (search), 49, was shot to death in his car as it neared his home in Ramat Hasharon on Monday. It was the first time an Israeli judge has been shot dead.

"I am shocked to the depths of my soul," Justice Minister Joseph Lapid (search) said. "The violence in Israel has reached shocking heights. This must make every citizen in Israel think about where our society is heading."

Though the motive for the shooting was not clear — police were examining personal angles as well as possible links to cases the judge tried — the gangland-style shooting brought into focus the rising prominence of violence in once-peaceful Israeli society.

In the 1950s, the first decade of the state's existence, veteran Israelis tell of leaving their doors unlocked without fear of burglary. Now, with burglary and robbery commonplace, apartments are fortified with steel doors and barred window.

Experts say there is no ignoring the soaring violent crime statistics and almost daily reports of violence in Israeli schools, from fistfights to knife battles, some of them fatal.

Also, road rage is becoming a problem, and ordinary arguments that used to consist of shouting often end with blows, shots or stabbings.

Statistics published by the Israel police show that between 1980 and 2002, the number of murders each year almost tripled, as did the overall incidence of violent crime.

The murder rate in 2003 was unchanged from the year before, a police spokesman said.

Experts had several explanations.

Criminologist Danny Gershy told Israel Radio that the law enforcement community and the educational system were falling down on the job, failing to adequately punish criminals and coddling disruptive students.

"They're not giving a proper answer to the problem," he said. "We shouldn't be surprised that violence is spreading and that it is increasing in intensity."

Psychiatrist Ruchama Marton of Physicians for Human Rights (search), which often complains about Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza, saw a link with the actions of the Israeli military in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

"The violence is a virus that doesn't observe borders, " she said. "If someone uses egregious violence against Palestinians, whether it's beating someone at a checkpoint or a pilot acting without moral limits, the violence moves from the occupied territories into Israel."

Violence perpetrated by organized criminal gangs is also spreading at an alarming rate, officials say.

Last December a bombing attributed to Israel's criminal underworld killed three bystanders in downtown Tel Aviv, rocking residents already edgy because of three years of Palestinian suicide bombings.

Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (search) said the manner of Azar's killing suggested the involvement of a professional hit man. The judge was shot once in the head and twice in the chest by a motorcyclist dressed as a security guard.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), loosely associated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah group, claimed responsibility for the killing in a message faxed to The Associated Press, but Israeli officials did not take the claim seriously.

The Haaretz newspaper reported Tuesday that police were looking closely at Azar's personal life after establishing that he did not adjudicate criminal cases.