Youth gangs from the community of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees have in recent weeks been swamping Tel Aviv beaches and stealing bathers' belongings, according to police. Most of the thefts have occurred on Tel Aviv's major beaches. Authorities attribute the thefts to the increase in the number of refugees who have come to the city this year, and the lack of employment opportunities for them. Police say the stolen goods and money are sufficient for a day's existence; they expect more such incidents to occur.

Eritrean and Sudanese refugees start arriving at the beach at noon, say police, especially to the strip between Jerusalem Beach and Mezizim/Peepers' Beach. Some try to find day-labor jobs in the morning, but some who fail allegedly try to earn their daily keep by preying on beach-goers instead.

Police say small groups composed of up to five refugees roam the beach looking for easy pickings. Young lovers or teens in the water are the preferred targets, but the main goal is to find a bag or something else lying around that is easy to grab and then sell at the city's Central Bus Station.

Police describe the gangs' activities as follows: they begin by surveying the beach. The moment one of the thieves spots a likely item, he signals his buddies. Then the group strolls toward the promenade to plan the theft.

"The minute they identify the item they want to steal, they give a whistle," says Walid Ottoman, a company commander in the Border Patrol, who has been busy patrolling the beaches for the last two weeks. "Two of them will head straight down to the object while the others move to the sides and watch for police or others who can catch them in the act. The moment the two, who are now near the item, decide that it's a go, the bag disappears," he explains.

The gangs use several methods to steal bathers' bags, say police. One method is to crawl toward young lovers who are completely absorbed in one another. One member of the gang will silently inch toward the couple's belongings and return the same way, while clutching the goods. Another common method involves crawling toward a bag or wallet that's been spotted, digging a hole in the sand, hiding it there, and leaving some kind of marker - a bottle cap or shirt - to indicate the location. The thief then leaves as if he were an innocent bystander, and later one of his buddies collects the loot without arousing suspicion.

Most Tel Aviv beaches fall under the jurisdiction of the Yarkon police district. Lately, even though the bathing season has not yet opened officially, district commander Brig. Gen. Yoram Ohayon has approved the summer season's working plan. The district allocates large forces to the beaches on weekdays and increases the numbers on weekends.

In 2011, 88 suspects were arrested for property theft on beaches in central Tel Aviv. This year the police expect that figure to double. In the last two weeks alone, 11 Sudanese and Eritrean refugees have been arrested on the city's beaches. In one incident, a policeman and a policewoman who happened to be relaxing at the beach spotted a group of Eritrean youths approaching, and went into the water. One of the group members fell for the ploy and allegedly stole the bag. An undercover police officer nearby arrested him and the friend who'd served as the lookout.

In recent months, crime involving Sudanese and Eritrean refugees has increased by many dozens of percentage points, with a steep spike in property crimes, as well as an increase in violent crimes and sexual assaults. A major problem in combating the phenomenon is the fact that it is almost impossible to punish the thieves, either because of language limitations or lack of identification means. By the next day, those arrested are often back on the beach.