Refugee Tel Aviv - Ziv - 1.5.12
A south Tel Aviv man examining the damage caused by firebombs tossed at migrants’ homes in the city last week. Photo by Oren Ziv
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The police and aid organizations squared off in the Knesset on Monday over whether crime by asylum seekers and migrant workers is rising or falling.

Commander David Gez, head of the police's Yiftah region, was briefing the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers on last week's firebombing of migrants' houses in Tel Aviv's Shapira neighborhood. Gez said he expects additional arrests in the case shortly.

But the migrants, he added, are not the only victims: There has been "a serious rise in involvement by foreigners in crime."

Representatives of aid organizations promptly challenged that claim. In fact, they said, crime by migrants is falling, and migrants actually have a lower crime rate than do Israelis.

According to police data, said Sigal Rozen of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, the crime rate among migrants in 2009-2011 ranged from 2.04 to 2.49 percent, compared to a rate of 4.99 percent among Israelis in 2010.

Gez responded that on the national level, crime rates have indeed fallen. But in the Yiftah region, which has the country's highest concentration of migrants, "there has been a dramatic rise in foreigners' involvement [in crime] since 2008, and the rise in 2012 is even steeper, for both serious crimes and others."

Most migrants are not hardened criminals, he added; rather, they "are dragged into it."

On Monday, police permitted publication of the crime that Shapira residents said had sparked the firebombing: the attempted rape of a neighborhood girl by a migrant. Residents stressed that they condemn the bombing, but want their fellow Israelis to understand what they are living with.

One resident, Zvi Gelbart, termed the situation "a ticking time bomb."

"My girlfriend is afraid to walk down the street because of the homeless," he said, and her felafel stand has been suffering economically because of "a nearby stand that employs foreigners and can therefore charge less."

But despite Gez's claim that crime by migrants is rising, the police recently decided to dismantle the special border police unit that has spent the last two years patrolling the section of Tel Aviv where the migrants are concentrated.

Police have said their biggest problem with migrant crime is finding the perpetrators, since victims' descriptions are often too general to be useful and many migrants are not in the government's computer system. Catching criminals would be much easier, they say, if they could access the biometric data collected by the Israel Prison Service from every illegal migrant who enters the country.

On one thing, however, all those present at the meeting agreed: The government is at fault for not dealing with the situation.