"You walk down the street, hear them and say to yourself 'Oh my God, where am I living?' We are more afraid of rats here than terrorist attacks," says Udi Tana, who lives on the border of Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan. "When I get into my car, I have to make sure that some of them didn't get in with me," says Ester Horn, who has lived in Bnei Brak for more than 40 years, "They bit a baby in her bed, on the ground floor, they bit children in kindergarten, this endangers life."
These are not urban legends. In recent months there have indeed been several cases of children in Bnei Brak being bitten by rats. These incidents include a two-year-old girl who was bitten throughout her body in bed at night and was rushed to hospital covered in blood. In the streets of the city, where about a quarter of a million residents are crammed into an area of about 7.3 square kilometers, big, fearless and frightening rats scurry openly around the streets. Some estimate there are hundreds of thousands. Bnei Brak's rats have even reached the Knesset. In a discussion earlier this month by Interior Committee, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said that this was a unique hazard and that treatment of the problem began in 2021.
Bnei Brak's residents can't believe this is happening to them. "I served in Hebron as a soldier and as an officer, and there we called them cat rats, because they were the size of real cats," says Tana
Horn adds, "They stroll around the city center and already know the alleys better than I do. The rats pop up everywhere there is garbage or sewage. The infrastructure in Bnei Brak is so bad that every Saturday night there are pools of sewage here and the rats just party. It's a bit like the wild pigs in Haifa. The rats hang out in large gangs and are not afraid of anyone."
The municipality, which seems to have been dragging its feet, has now suddenly woken up, taken a loan for NIS 20 million, hired somebody to be in charge of the problem and is acting aggressive on the matter. In Bnei Brak they have finally understood: it's either us or the rats. It is not certain that the results of this struggle will be appreciated by residents of neighboring cities, such as Ramat Gan, Petah Tikva or even Tel Aviv, but more on that later.
"They haven't come for the cholent"
Bnai Brak Municipality is run by the Haredi political parties. They are being challenged by Yaakov Vidar, who is also Haredi but represents the Likud and serves as a one-man opposition in the city against Mayor Avrohom Rubinstein. Vidar says that he brings up the subject of the rats time and again at council meetings over at least the past year but Rubinstein and his supporters deny that there are any rats in Bnei Brak, until in his words "they almost bit them in the butt."
"From Bnei Brak municipality's point of view, the city was clean," says Vider. "Only recently did the municipality admit that there was a problem and now they are blaming the light rail. It is interesting that this did not happen either in Tel Aviv, or Ramat Gan, or Givat Shmuel or Petah Tikva. The rats, it turns out, only know how to navigate Bnei Brak."
Why is this happening to you?
"There is a problem with cleanliness in Bnei Brak. It is one of the dirtiest cities in Israel and you can see it with your eyes. On top of that, there are crazy sewage overflows here and everything gets mixed up in the streets. The cats in the city are afraid of the rats." Or as he put it in the Knesset debate, "The rats don't just come because they like Bnei Brak's cholent. The main problem is the garbage, the filth in Bnei Brak."
Vider says that he represents on the city council everyone who is not Haredi, which is 15% of the population in Bnei Brak (most of whom are concentrated in the Pardes Katz neighborhood). "I can say that the most rat-infested areas of the city, with the most criminal neglect, are the secular areas," he says.
What are you doing to improve the situation?
"When I saw that the municipality continued to say everything was fine and even gave themselves awards, I began to flooding the media on the subject of rats. I knew this was the only tool that could make them move. In terms of external assistance, I applied to the Ministries of Interior and Health, but they kicked me down the stairs. I went to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, where the minister (Idit Silman) is from my party, so they finally opened the door. The minister ordered her director general to look into the matter and within a week showed up herself in Bnei Brak. She was shocked. Suddenly the Bnei Brak Municipality said it plans dealing with the rats."
The Ministry of Health said, "Treatment of rodents is the responsibility of local authorities. Following complaints received at the Health Ministry's Tel Aviv office on the rodent hazard, we passed the issue on for handling by the local authority in charge of it."
The Municipality is waking up
Publicist and strategic consultant Kivi Hass presents himself as the Bnai Brak spokesperson, even though he was not chosen for the role by a public tender. Nevertheless, he is an aide of Rubinstein and a major figure in explaining the city's new plan to exterminate the rats.
"We have hired a professional project manager in Portal Ecological Consultants, which has already submitted an overall integrated plan that includes clearing waste piles, monitoring pits, massive pest control, clearing yards and working with residents," Hess reports. "The project manager began operating in Bnei Brak since July 1. Teams from his company are in the city with dozens of cranes and trucks as well as outreach teams. They have divided the city into six areas and each area has appointed an area manager. According to estimates, results will be seen in the field within a few weeks. We are finishing mobilizing the residents for the operation and expect them to show patience towards over the heavy vehicles that will be driving around the streets, as well as clearing and cleaning yards in accordance with the project's requirements."
Yossi Portal, the project leader, reported in the Knesset on the progress and said that "this is a mega-event. Our team, which operates 20 trucks, cleared 250 tons of garbage in five days." To put things into perspective, a person in Israel produces an average of 1.7 kilograms of waste per day according to data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
On the other hand, exterminator Boaz Kaiserman told the Knesset Interior Committee meeting, "The case of Bnei Brak is a unique because of the limestone hills on which it sits, and the problem will get worse." He explains that there are many stone terraces and walls in the city built of relatively brittle concrete, as is the city's sewage system. "The creepy feature of the brown rat is that it knows how to gnaw through the brittle concrete from which Bnei Brak is built. The brown rat has the ability to gnaw any wall and any concrete," said Kaiserman. In his estimation, there is almost no connection between the construction of the light rail and the rat problem, and the neglect and garbage are also a supporting factor, but not the main one.
Is the plague of rats related to work on the light rail in Bnei Brak?
"On this issue, there was a fierce debate between us and the NTA, which says that in other cities where works were carried out there were no rat hazards," says Hess. "We claim that the facts are simple: in all the neighborhoods adjacent to the route of the light rail works, the plague of rats is at its peak. It may be that in Tel Aviv, for example, the train route does not go through such densely populated areas as here. In Bnei Brak, the route goes right through Jabotinsky Street, with very densely populated neighborhoods on both sides - Pardes Katz and Givat Sokolov. No local authority in Israel has had to cope with the phenomenon on this scale."
You have lost precious time
"Our trial and error phase took time, but we knew that in any case there is no systematic change. We sat down with heads of authorities, exterminators, zoologists - and each one of them said something different. Some tried to calm us down and said that this is a plague that is reaching the peak of an outbreak, but after a few years the reproduction of rats stops and they begin to decrease. Others claimed that the problem is in the garbage bins that we installed in Bnei Brak, which created a problem for the rats to access food and forced them to come out into the open."
Have you tried asking for government help?
"When we turned to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, we received a lot of instructions, but we did not receive emergency aid at all similar to what the city received during the Covid pandemic. At least the ministry approved the project we took and its action plan. Such a situation is too big and too much for a municipal authority. We had to take a NIS 20 million bank loan to deal with the plague of rats. The loan is supposed to finance only the first phase of dealing with the rats. We know we have a long way to go."
What do you say to the criticism of Yaakov Vidar?
"The Bnei Brak Municipality has been dealing with the issue of rats in the city for more than a year. I personally participated in dozens of meetings and discussions on this issue. You have to remember that there is a rapid outbreak here and what it was in the winter is not how it is today. It may be that at the beginning we did not understand the scope of the phenomenon, but we learned as we went along and today we are absolutely sure that in a few weeks everyone will see a very big change."
The mayor allegedly said at a council meeting that there are no rats in the city. "They attribute to the mayor a sentence that was taken completely out of context. When they talked about the rats, he said 'What, there are rats?' Sarcastically, to make it clear to the speakers that they really had not made a startling discovery. Dozens of people were at that meeting and all of them can testify that the words were said as a joke, sarcastically."
Municipal rates like in New York
In addition to the NIS 20 million loan that the municipality is asking the Ministry of the Interior to approve, the deputy ombudsman of the municipality of Bnei Brak, Adv. Yaakov Raved, said in the Knesset, "Additional budgets are needed from the government ministries and funds for cleaning for a comprehensive treatment of the problem."
Tana, who is a friend of Vader's, does not believe that the representative of the municipality is actually talking about taking a bank loan specifically to treat the rats. "It can't be, the sanitation budget of the municipality of Bnei Brak is NIS 120 million. We, the residents of Bnei Brak, pay municipal taxes like in New York and receive infrastructure like in Gaza. The city is dirty on a crazy level, sometimes the garbage is not removed for four days."
The municipality says handling such a problem is too much for them financially.
"The municipality of Bnei Brak can't deceive us into thinking it doesn't have money, it has a budget of almost NIS 2 billion. It sits on the property taxes of all the office towers in its jurisdiction - BSR 1,2,3,4, Champion Tower and others. It's a gold mine."
Vider offers precise numbers, "The Bnai Brak municipality is not poor, it has a budget of NIS 1.7 billion. The property tax in Bnei Brak is high, higher than in Savion. The residents of Bnei Brak are poor, but the municipality is really not. The return that the residents receive for what they pay is simply terrible. There is a reign of fear in the city, people are afraid to complain."
Tana agrees that fear stops residents from protesting. "The residents here are afraid that anyone who speaks out will pay for it later, for example when registering children for school."
Municipality blames light rail works
Comments on WhatsApp groups reflect the feelings of despir of Bnei Brak residents. "It's a shame, why are the rats anti-Semitic, they only go to religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews? What, didn't they dig in Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan? There is real terror here, after eight in the evening no one leaves their home. In WhatsApp groups there are descriptions of rats that climbed to the fourth floor through the gutters, or got into cars. Fear. My one-year-old daughter Maya, instead of telling her, 'There's a dog,' 'There's a cat,' I tell her, 'There's a rat.' It may sound funny, but are they waiting wait for someone to die?"
So why is there really no rat infestation in Tel Aviv? "The Sanitation Department of Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality has had an innovative model for years," the municipality explains, "in which a monitor is employed by the Construction Supervision Unit at construction sites and enforcement is imposed regarding pests (mainly rats and mosquitoes). The municipality also has a control system that covers all construction sites, including the light rail, making handling of calls more thorough and efficient; and stressing work platforms interfacing all bodies (sanitation, construction and infrastructure, external companies, etc.) with publications on the subject available."
When it gets crowded even rats migrate
In Bnei Brak, the municipality has begun to deal seriously, it seems, with the plague of rats. But what will happen now?
"Expanded reproduction usually indicates that there is a lot of food available to rats. Beyond that, there is no vacuum in nature: a jump in the numbers of any animal indicates that there is currently no other animal that threatens it, which balances its reproduction," explains Dr. Michael Ettinger, chairman of the Histadrut of Veterinary Doctors in Israel.
Dr. Ettinger suggests focusing on the human factor: "Man throws so much food in the trash that it is really not surprising that more and more animals cross the virtual fence and come to look for food in the human living environment. We see this happening with the wild boars in Haifa, and probably also with the rats in Bnei Brak."
Why have the rats suddenly moved above ground in such large numbers in Bnei Brak?
"They live most of the time in the sewer infrastructure, underground, but sewage overflows can cause them to rise to the surface. It is very possible that the work on the light rail is involved here. The excavation drives the rats out of the burrows, they escape through the sewer system and rise to the surface."
How influential do you think the light rail excavations really are?
"When someone enters an animal's habitat, that animal flees from there. When they started building new neighborhoods in cities like Tiberias and Karmiel, there was a mass escape of rock rabbits. This led to an outbreak of leishmaniasis (Rose of Jericho, a skin disease transmitted by the bite of the sand fly). This has also been happening in recent years with jackals that have entered residential areas and currently roam the streets of Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan."
Dr. Ettinger stresses it is by no means certain that the rat infestation will begin and end in Bnei Brak. "Rats have been known in the distant and less distant past as carriers of diseases that are no longer supposed to be here, such as cholera. They are immune to most diseases themselves, but can transmit them to a person through contact with food, secretions and, of course, bites."
Can they mass-migrate to neighboring cities?
"That's a very good question. If you provide very little food to a lot of rats, they have two options: run away or eat each other. It's hard to predict what will happen. An animal that is in an environment where there are many mouths to feed will try to run away to a place where it will be easier for it to find food. With the rats, as soon as one runs away others will follow, because the first runaways mark the escape route with secretions. They move in families."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 25, 2023.
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.