Several months ago, the Russian crime squad in the Tel Aviv central police unit celebrated its success in recruiting two prostitutes to testify against Boniyat Zada, who is suspected of being one of Israel's major "importers" of women from the former Soviet Union. Zada was arrested and indicted, but the case could not go to trial and Zada was released. This was because "suddenly, our two witnesses disappeared," says the commander of the squad, Superintendent Pini Aviram. During the past year, some 20 women who were slated to testify against their pimps have similarly disappeared.

The crackdown on prostitution in Israel got a legislative boost when the Law Against Trafficking in Women went into effect in August 2000. However, the Tel Aviv police's Russian crime squad has only nine investigators, who are left to wage an almost hopeless battle against a growing phenomenon. "We used to be 13, but one of the teams was quickly transfered to another operation in the unit and we've remained 9 investigators," a member of the squad explains.

"It's not easy to persuade the women to testify against their pimps. Few come to us voluntarily," Aviram says. Most of those who do agree to cooperate with the police do so after suffering unusual hardship or because their pimps failed to pay them.

A prostitute who agrees to testify is housed in a Tel Aviv hostel while waiting for the pimp's trial to begin. "The main problem is the waiting period before testifying," Aviram explains. "Sometimes the women have to wait for nine months or even a year. During this long period, they have no income and many of them also continue to meet with those against whom they're supposed to testify," he adds.

"There is simply no appropriate framework for the witnesses," according to attorney Naomi Levenkron, the legal director of The Hotline for Migrant Workers. "Everyone knows where the women are staying. There are no guards around the hostel and anyone can enter and meet with them."

In the past, prostitutes willing to testify against their handlers were kept in custody until delivering their testimony. But this practice was stopped after a court ruled that the women could not be held without being charged with a crime. It was then decided to move the witnesses to a hostel instead.

"We wrote and warned against the possibility that the witnesses would disappear," says Commander Avi Davidovich, who served on the interministerial committee that studied the problem of trafficking in women. Davidovich notes that many of the witnesses decide on their own to return to prostitution, sometimes even plying their trade from their rooms in the hostel. However, it is clear that some of the witnesses are forced to "disappear" for their own safety.

The witnesses receive a weekly stipend of about MIS 200, while Aviram's police squad must provide other services, including dental and medical care. "Aviram is like a mother and father to these women," Levenkron concurs.

"This is inconceivable - police investigators have to spend time taking care of these women instead of focusing on investigations since there is no other arrangement for them," Davidovich adds.

Most of the parties involved seem to agree that the best solution is to provide a protective shelter for these women where a range of medical, legal and employment services would be offered. A tender for this type of shelter was issued by the Social Affairs Ministry in April and is slated to close in early June.

Meanwhile, a new phenomenon has emerged at the hostel. Police have collected evidence (in a file codenamed "Mata Hari") about a network of suspects who allegedly recruited "spies" among the witnesses.

"The spies would provide the names of witnesses, where they worked, and against which pimp they were slated to testify. The pimps are willing to pay a lot of money for the information about those slated to testify against them. Then, after the pimp receives the name of the witness, he persuades her to leave the country - using force or threats - so she won't testify against him," Aviram said.