Hot Wheels

The bottom line is my expensive Trek 4500, stolen three years ago from the stairwell in a building on Tel Aviv's Emanuel Haromi Street, was not among yesterday's stockpile of stolen bikes at the Tel Aviv police station. Like me, hundreds of other Tel Aviv residents who came to the hall on Hahaskala Avenue where the 250 bicycles recovered this past year by the police were collected, will have to forego the pleasure of riding in the middle of the road on Yom Kippur - "the festival of the bikes." One of them, a young man in his twenties, simply burst into tears when he did not find his expensive mountain bike.

Unlike those of us who were left disappointed, however, there were quite a few people who received a rather nice gift for the new year - a bicycle they identified as their own and on which they rode off, after leaving their particulars with the police; or which they merely loaded, still smiling, onto their cars because the bike had been damaged since the theft.

By nine in the morning, an hour before the collection of recovered bikes was to open to the public, a long line could already be seen forming outside the hall entrance. Dozens of residents of Tel Aviv and the rest of the Dan region stood, tensely waiting to see if they could find their stolen bike, with a copy in their hands of their complaint filed with the police.

"Who would have thought they would return them? I never dreamt there was a chance, but I found one of the four bikes stolen from me in the past two years, here today," said a resident of the Yad Eliahu neighborhood. Edna Hodorov and her friend, who between them have had five bikes stolen since 2005, were also successful. They found two of the five, although one was not in good enough condition to ride. "It's possible it will cost more to fix it than to buy a new bike," Hodorov said, "but I am delighted."

Lilach Beit Esh, a young woman from central Tel Aviv was also pleased to find the bike stolen from her just one month ago. "An hour and a half in the gym - that's how long my bike had been chained up outside. I couldn't find it when I finished and I thought I'd forgotten where I left it. But then I realized that it had been stolen, the second bike stolen from me." She said her apartment has also been broken into three times and she's lost three laptops. "Unfortunately they didn't find those," she said sadly.

Going abroad

Most of those who came yesterday said they'd already had three bikes stolen. Many went up to the policemen in the hall and congratulated them on their good work. "This is a real treat, and especially since it's just before Yom Kippur," said Saar Shauli. "To think I found my bike - which is worth NIS 3,000. That's something that doesn't happen every day."

At the side of the hall stands Superintendent Yossi Reuveni, commander of the Horev police unit, which is in charge of fighting street crime and responsible for catching most of the bicycle thieves operating in the city and its environs. In the past few weeks, officers from this unit have caught 120 thieves who fell into the trap of stealing a chained bicycle in the center of Tel Aviv. The bikes had been fitted with a specially inserted chip from the Ituran firm, which alerts police the moment the vehicle is moved.

Reuveni suddenly tensed up when he was informed that one of the decoys in northern Tel Aviv had been moved. The policemen who rushed to the spot found the bike lying on the ground, apparently knocked over by a passerby. "This campaign - which includes placing decoys, marking residents' bikes and returning stolen bikes - is very important to us and helps to restore residents' faith in the police," says Reuveni. "Many people don't even come to file a complaint when their bicycle is stolen."

Last week the Horev police unit discovered another location for storing stolen bikes when a thief brought a decoy there. "We heard a Filipino man conducting negotiations with two of the suspects before they went into a south Tel Aviv apartment," Reuveni said. "They had six other bikes there." The three suspects were detained for investigation and it appears the foreign worker was planning to ship the bikes to the Philippines and sell them there for a nice profit. "He told us he had already done this several times in the past," one of the detectives said. "We are familiar with this phenomenon of shipping bicycles abroad. During the previous arrest we made, we found a store where the bicycles were dismantled and put into boxes to prepare them to be shipped abroad."

Indeed, some of the bicycles returned to their owners yesterday had already been taken apart, with the wheels and pedals tied to the frame. These and dozens of others had been found by police of the Yiftah region two months ago in a raid in southern Tel Aviv on a container, a few minutes before it was due to go to the port and be sent to an African country.

'Yalla, take these!'

Back at the exhibition yesterday, the police officers were visited by District Police Commander Shahar Ayalon, an avowed bike enthusiast and the proud owner of a Cannondale All-Terrain. "Friends of mine have also told me they did not think of complaining to the police after their first or second bikes were stolen. It's true that for years no one believed their bikes would be returned to them, as is happening here today," he says. "I hope that one of the successes of this campaign is that the public will once again have faith in us."

However, anyone watching the "great bike distribution," as the police dubbed it, could see that some of the people went home with items that merely resembled their own stolen bikes. "They've stolen five bikes from us in the past two years and the children use the bikes to ride to school," said one Tel Aviv resident. "We can't leave them without bikes. I told the policeman that I don't know how to identify them exactly and when we saw two bikes that looked very much like those of my kids, he said, 'Yalla! Take these.' He seemed pleased to get rid of them."

As part of the campaign, everyone who retrieved a bike had to register his particulars and the frame number of the bike with the police so that it will be easier to return the next time it's stolen. "It's clear it's just a matter of time until it happens again, but what can we do. This is Tel Aviv," said a young woman who says she's had three bikes stolen from her in three years in the city center.

"In the United States there is a company that makes locks on which they print that they will buy you another bike if yours is stolen while using their lock. But they add, in small print, 'unless you are a resident of New York,'" says Noah, a new immigrant from that city who now lives in Tel Aviv and was registering his bike with the police. "I guess there are similarities between New York and Tel Aviv in that respect."

Yotam Avizohar, the head of the Israel Bicycle Association that collaborated with the police in the campaign, said it's been the practice to register bikes in many other countries for years. "In Japan, for example, every bike has a license and a registration number and the police stop you in the streets to check your papers. Perhaps that is what we should aim for, but certainly more must be done to fight against the theft causing insufferable harm to the owners personally and the country in general," he says.

The police would not comment officially yesterday on the attitude of the courts toward bicycle thieves, but one of the officers said off the record, "There is no doubt that one way to deal with this phenomenon is to impose heavier sentences. Today every judge becomes merciful when a suspected bicycle thief is brought before him. But a few hours after he is released, he steals another bike."

From data Haaretz obtained about bicycle theft, it seems Ayalon should be most perturbed. The data reveal that bicycle thefts committed so far this year were up by more than 100 percent compared with the same period last year. In southern Tel Aviv and Jaffa, 111 bikes were stolen as compared with 48 last year (a 131 percent rise), and in Givatayim, Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan, 117 stolen, as compared with 60 last year (a 98 percent rise). In the center of Tel Aviv and the north of the city, 733 bikes were stolen as compared with 352 during the same period the previous year (an increase of 108 percent). In Holon and Bat Yam, 25 bikes were stolen compared with 22 in the previous year.

Altogether yesterday morning, some 30 bikes were returned to their owners - three of them to one family alone, a mother and her two children.