A rat the size of a well-fed house cat sent a female reporter from Army Radio dashing across Fein Street one night earlier this week in the heart of the Central Bus Station neighborhood, Tel Aviv’s basin of junkies, homeless African migrants, and bottom-rung prostitutes. The brush with the rodent was one of the few moments of excitement during a tour organized by police for crime reporters, all of whom have been to the area time and time again. The feeling was almost akin to taking political reporters on a tour of the Knesset, though it did have its bright moments, including when a female crime reporter for an Israeli outlet wanted to see the inside of a brothel, so the deputy head of the Tel Aviv district knocked on the door of a matchbox sized apartment on Fein Street and the reporter was let in by a haggard, 50-something prostitute, who pinched her cheek and showed off her meager digs.
(A Tel Aviv prostitute welcomes reporters, police into her brothel in south Tel Aviv - credit: Ben Hartman)
The tour was held a little over two weeks after news broke of a brutal rape of an 83-year-old woman by an Eritrean migrant in Neve Shaanan, a crime that police kept from the press for over a week.
Recorders were turned off and notepads stashed away at the Lewinsky police station so that Tel Aviv police commander Maj. General Aharon Eksel and head of the Yiftach sub-district (which covers south Tel Aviv and Jaffa) commander David Gez could speak freely about the issues facing the station in the heart of Tel Aviv’s African migrant community, without any loose words finding their way into the Israeli papers the next morning.
Over the course of a half hour talk at the station Eksel and Gez discussed the quality of life issues facing the Neve Shaanan, Hatikvah and Shapira neighborhoods, where an influx of tens of thousands of migrants has led to tension with veteran residents and a declining feeling of personal safety, even if such a feeling isn’t necessarily borne out by crime statistics.
The officers spoke about the violence and petty crime in and around the area of the bus station – the lowest spot in the seediest corner of Tel Aviv – which they said has only become worse in recent years. Reporters in the room pointed out that the area has been a haunt of drug addicts, street walkers, and all types of ne’er-do-wells since long before the African migrants began arriving, a point the police conceded, before adding that the problems police are dealing with today are unique.
It was clear from the conversation that police are quite concerned about the public safety in south Tel Aviv as well as a battery of social issues they don’t have the tools to deal with. Eksel spoke of fears that there will be an outbreak of HIV among junkies who have taken to shooting up “hagigat”, a cheap, bathtub crank sold at kiosks for as little as 25 shekels, sharing mixing caps and needles. The implication being that in a vacuum left by the state, the police and the city hall are left to try and find ways to stave off a public health disaster and the on-the-ground absorption of a population of thousands of illegal migrants, dumped in their district by the state alongside a veteran population of Israeli drug addicts and sex workers.
Eksel and Gez described their work as having changed dramatically in the past five years since the migrant influx began. The migrants have brought with them a wave of crime, most of which the officers said is petty theft by people not legally allowed to work, and struggling to survive on the street. They also spoke of the nightly, drunken brawls that spill out of the African bars in south Tel Aviv, which they said are typified by brutal violence and a disregard for life.
Joined by two patrol officers, Eksel and Gez led the reporters through the park over to the Neve Shaanan pedestrian walkway, passing the stolen bike market before turning left onto Fein Street.
When asked why police don’t shut down the market, one officer said they have adopted an approach of allowing the market to stay open, with the assumption that if desperate migrants can’t make money selling stolen bikes they’ll eventually start breaking into houses or snatching purses, crimes that have a greater potential for public risk. A similar explanation was given towards the brothels, with police on the tour saying not only is soliciting prostitution legal in Israel, but also they worry that if the population of tens of thousands of migrants, most of them men, don’t have an outlet for their sexual needs they may end up attacking Israeli women.
Past the bike market police pointed out a hookah bar crammed with dozens of migrants watching a soccer game, the Star of David on the front door indicating that not long ago it had been a small neighborhood synagogue for the Jewish residents who left years earlier.
The tour ended on the second floor of Fein 1, a building that for years had been an infamous shooting gallery, the lowest circle of the central bus station inferno. Today the building is full of apartments housing African migrants, many of them families, after the owners realized that renting out to drug addicts was no longer worth it. Eksel stood on a second floor balcony overlooking the courtyard and bragged about how today, there is zero crime in the building.
Intentional or not, that may have been a telling way to end the tour. As the group had strolled down Fein Street it passed several storefronts that had once been brothels or peep shows and are today African migrant bars, as well as buildings where one-time drug dens are now rented out to families of migrants and Asian foreign workers, who tend to be much more lucrative and dependable tenants. Simply put, beyond the politics a glaring and very obvious gentrification is taking place, much of it brought on by African migrants, as one population leaves and another one enters and renews.
When asked if from a public safety perspective police prefer brothels and drug dens to apartments housing illegal African migrants, one officer answered “each population has its problems, you switch out one and you have the problems of the other.”