Tel Aviv sex workers resist gentrification and raids

Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

December saw another raid on a sex workers’ workplace in Tel Aviv, with 11 people arrested on charges of running a ‘prostitution ring'. The raids targeted a number of workplaces around the city’s old central bus station.

The majority of those arrested are suspected of money laundering and evading millions of shekels in taxes. Hebrew media reports have been sensationalist with many focussing on the charges against the man they have dubbed “Tel Aviv’s prostitution king”, who is facing charges relating to renting out the rooms in brothels and providing other services in support of the workplaces.

Over the last year, the district surrounding the central bus station has been targeted for increased raids, and many argue this is related directly to gentrification of the area. There is an increased police presence, and landlords have taken to increasing rents at rapid speeds and evicting people they suspect to be sex workers or people who use drugs, many of whom have been based in the area for decades. Brothels used to be found across the district, commonly in the ground-floor and basement apartments. Street-based sex workers have worked from this area for many decades as well, and a range of sex workers used the “rooms for rent” and “discreet apartments,” which used to be common. Now most of these short-term rooms are shut down. Street-based sex workers still work from the area, but are far fewer.

Romi, a 43-year-old migrant sex worker and single mother, said: “everything is starting to be closed”. According to Romi, most of the doors are now locked to the premises which used to house brothels in the area (around Solomon, Ehrlinger and Finn Streets). “They say they’ll close everything. Obviously they will. They’re rebuilding everything,” says Romi, adding that while her income has suffered, she still “says thank you for what there is.”

A representative from the local needle syringe service said they believe that the authorities’ aim is to shut down sex work businesses, and that they often use administrative orders to do so. Since June, a newly built park for “Israeli children” has opened, part of an overall urban renewal program for the area which was approved in 2015. Among the new offices opening in the area is a new police headquarters, allowing a base for the police’s increased activities in the area. 

Among the offences most targeted by police are “pimping and the employment of women to provide sex services”, as well as operating simultaneous crackdowns on drug-related offences. Police speak about sex work as an inherently exploitative criminal offence, which they appear to believe is best addressed by surveillance and criminal charges. The police are also working in tandem with aid organisations and the Tel Aviv welfare department, with the goal of helping women “leave the cycle of prostitution and drugs and rehabilitate their lives"

For the sex workers who do remain in the area, they live and work in defiance of police and state attempts to “rescue” them against their will. Graffiti directs clients to new addresses, with black graffiti on one building providing instructions on how to find a peep show which used to operate from there, other buildings have graffiti redirecting customers to new premises around the corner. Most local sex workers speak of continuing to work in the area and persevering even against reduced income, and in some cases moving to nearby areas or even other cities. 

One Palestinian woman in her 60s told reporters that she has worked in the central bus station area since 1986: “There’s almost no work, but I can’t stop,” she says. “Where will I go when the area changes? I have nowhere to go, no other place,” says the woman, who has no residence permit. “I have no help from the state. I have no one. I’m staying here. I’m not going anywhere.”