“The phenomenon of trafficking in women in Israel has disappeared,” according to Knesset member David Tsur of the HaTenua Party, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Trafficking in Women and Prostitution. Tsur, a retired major general in the police, was previously the commander of the Tel Aviv police district and the head of the operational headquarters of the Ministry of Public Security. In these roles he had first-hand exposure to the phenomenon, which was quite widespread in Israel at the beginning of the millennium. The reports of the US State Department from 2002 included Israel, alongside countries such as Sudan and Somalia, on the blacklist of countries where women are trafficked on a daily basis and sold into the prostitution industry.
Thus it is indeed a noteworthy accomplishment that in the State Department's latest report, published in June, Israel received, for the second time in a row, the highest grade in the fight against the phenomenon. But beyond the accomplishment in itself, it’s important to understand how the state of Israel managed to deal so effectively with a problem that involved a lot of money, international criminal organizations and even security implications, since most of the women were brought to Israel through the border with Egypt, which was then very porous.
An analysis of the successful tackling of this issue can help in formulating a model for solving other social problems. Tsur, by virtue of his past and present posts, has become one of the foremost experts on the topic of trafficking in women and prostitution in Israel and the world. In an interview with Al-Monitor, he explains how the feat was done, and does not deny the conclusion that without American pressure and the fear of damage to its image, Israel would still be a magnet for traffickers in women.
Al-Monitor: Do you remember when you understood that Israel had become a destination for trafficking in women?
Tsur: On a personal level, I realized it after 2001, at one of my first meetings with the Americans on the topic of terror. I was then the head of the operational headquarters of the Ministry for Public Security. After one of the discussions, the representative of the State Department asked me what was happening with trafficking in women. I didn’t understand what he wanted, and I had no data on it. In response, he told me that he must bring it to my attention because our situation is not good, and that we’re on the same level as Sudan and Somalia. Of course, I was insulted and said it couldn’t be because we’re a democratic country.
In retrospect, of course he was right. When we began to study the subject, we understood that most of the women were brought from Russia, Ukraine and Moldova. Law-enforcement personnel in those countries were sometimes part of this food chain, and looked the other way in exchange for bribes. When we researched it in depth we found mafias that had sprung up in these regions.
Israel became a destination because of the arrival of criminal elements who established a foundation for trafficking here, and also because of the peaceful border with Egypt, which was then porous. The Bedouins, who became a link in the smuggling chain, understood that they could make a good living out of it. And so developed a phenomenon that bordered on slavery. Israel became a prime destination. We were busy then with the terror of the second intifada, and we didn’t notice what was happening under our noses.
Al-Monitor: So we woke up only because of the Americans?
Tsur: If I were a seasoned and professional politician, I would say that the decision to act was not related to the Americans, but the reality was that without the whip of the State Department, we would not have taken serious steps. We understood that if we didn’t address the problem, aid funds would be stalled, and very quickly we would have a new center of criminal activity on our hands.
Al-Monitor: So what did you do?
Tsur: When the US State Department reports put us on the blacklist in those first years, we understood the extent of the problem. At first it was placed in the jurisdiction of the central units in the police districts, and later an administrative body was created at the Ministry of Justice and the victims were treated a bit differently.
From the point of view of law-enforcement authorities, the women were prostitutes and were treated as part of the problem, not as victims who live in fear and don’t have enough to eat. We understood that if this had continued to be the approach, they would not agree to file complaints and testify and we would not be able to incriminate the traffickers. Simultaneously in 2006, the Knesset passed a draconian law against the traffickers, which set a 20-year jail sentence for a human-trafficking violation, and the message was very clear.
Women who filed complaints were treated at special shelters, where the state invested a lot of money in rehabilitation. Slowly, the phenomenon diminished. Of course, the closing of the border with Egypt helped a great deal with the disappearance of the problem. We handled it very aggressively, with cooperation among all law-enforcement agencies and the Ministry of Welfare.
Knesset Member David Tsur, HaTenua party, at a visit to Hebron on Sept. 4, 2013.
Al-Monitor: In Israel 2013, there’s no longer trafficking in women?
Tsur: In the last three years, the phenomenon hardly exists. Actually, I can say that trafficking in women from Eastern Europe stopped entirely, and that it’s very rare to find a woman who was imported to Israel by a party or person. We know that according to the US State Department reports, the phenomenon of trafficking no longer exists in Israel. It disappeared. This was continuously verified by data and testimonies — not just data from the authorities, but also from external, critical parties.
Al-Monitor: What conclusion can be drawn from this success?
Tsur: That in order to fight a phenomenon of this kind and this magnitude, all law-enforcement authorities must cooperate. We had a combination of cooperation among the police, the Ministry of Justice, the Knesset that legislated the law, the government that allocated resources and of course the American whip that pushed us to act. Thus, if it’s decided from on high to implement a policy, if resources are allocated and if headquarters are established and inspections are conducted — that’s how we succeed.
Al-Monitor: Does the problem of prostitution still occupy you?
Tsur: Certainly. Start from the fact that prostitution is not defined as a crime in Israeli law. So someone who actually traffics or runs a brothel could be incriminated only for the offense of running an establishment illegally. What’s happening in Israel is that there’s a policy of looking the other way from the phenomenon of prostitution, and there is no enforcement.
Al-Monitor: What is your position on the proposed law that will soon be brought to a vote in the Knesset that will enable authorities to incriminate and punish those who receive sex services as well?
Tsur: I don’t think we should allow legal prostitution, or recognize it as a profession. I don’t know a girl who says that her dream is to become a prostitute. Clearly, the state must deal with this. As for the law, I understand its logic, but there’s disagreement over this idea around the world. On the ethical level, it turns the client into a criminal because he takes advantage of a woman in distress. Those who argue against it say that the law creates a situation where the prostitute becomes a victim, because it forces her to incriminate the client. It’s a good law in that it provides tools, but we have to find a way not to turn women into victims.
In Sweden, where a similar law was passed, there’s mixed conclusions. The authorities claim that the phenomenon of prostitution has diminished, but on the other hand, there are other reports that show that prostitution has not vanished but exists in hidden places, and that the women’s situation has gotten worse.
Al-Monitor: A final question, on the diplomatic front that’s close to your heart: Are you optimistic about the efforts for peace of the chairwoman of your party, Tzipi Livni?
Tsur: On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, we met for a toast. Livni said, justifiably, that there’s a commitment not to share what’s happening in the room with parties outside of the negotiations. I believe that its success or failure ultimately depends on a brave decision or the indecision of the leaders of both sides. Because most of the factors are already known.
Mazal Mualem is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and formerly a chief political analyst for Maariv and Haaretz. She also previously worked for Bamachane, the Israeli army's weekly newspaper.