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"Trafficking in women here is run by organized crime," the head of the national police investigations branch, Major General Moshe Mizrahi, recently told a major local conference on prostitution.

The declaration surprised those at the conference, for a number of reasons. Police have generally adopted a policy of trying to play down the scope of the problem. Also, not everyone agrees with Mizrahi that "organized crime" operates in Israel, and more than anything, few had made a connection between organized crime and the sex trade.

The conference opened under a cloud of confusion and embarrassment. Shortly beforehand, the U.S. State Department released a report naming Israel as one of a group of countries in which trafficking in humans has reached epidemic proportions. The justice and public security ministers, senior police officers and the State Prosecutor's Office were insulted, and seized every platform to brand the American report inaccurate and unfair.

Yet it would appear that as in two other cases - intellectual property piracy and money laundering - it was an American report that woke Israel's law enforcement officials from their slumber. An intra-ministerial unit was formed to address the sex workers issue; police stepped up enforcement; and after Knesset members Yael Dayan and Zahava Gal-On gave the government a final lobbying push, a law was drafted to prohibit "trafficking in women" and the prison sentence for such offenses was set at 16 years.

These efforts produced results. In particular, they helped Israel save face in the international arena. Two months ago, the State Department improved Israel's ranking, classifying it in the second (of three) categories of problem countries in this field.

The new American report cited the criminal legislation banning trafficking, along with special directives issued by the State Prosecutor's Office, initiatives by the government to help victims of trafficking, and special training provided to law enforcers who deal with offenses in this category. On the other hand, the State Department's recent report concluded that Israel has yet to comply with standards set by the Americans.

Social welfare experts argue that despite the legislation and the "upgrading" in terms of the U.S. classification, little has actually been done to reduce criminal trafficking in humans.

Attorney Naomi Levenkorn, from the Organization for Assistance to Foreign Workers, believes a more systematic American investigation would put Israel right back in the lowest category, which applies to countries in which illegal trafficking is most widespread.

She also finds it disconcerting that anxiety about an American designation is what prompted enforcement against an immoral scourge in Israel.

In fact, police officers and workers with voluntary social organizations believe trafficking in women is on the rise. Moldavia supplies the largest number of sex workers to Israel, followed by the Ukraine. Officials from volunteer groups estimate that some 10,000 women have been sold into prostitution in Israel but police cite a much lower figure of 3,000.

However, volunteer workers and police agree that enforcement is not tough enough to deter those who deal in trafficking. Among other problems, they say relatively few indictments have been issued under the law banning trafficking in women that was passed in July 2000.

Just a few days ago, a first-of-its kind indictment was issued against three Israelis who recruited or bought women overseas to bring them to Israel to work as prostitutes - before these charges were filed, all indictments had referred exclusively to persons who dealt in trafficking in Israel.

Also, police and volunteer activists point out, punishments delivered by courts against traffickers have been far less severe than the law allows. So far the most serious penalty given a trafficking offender has been four-and-a-half years, and most sentences have been no longer than 18 months.

Levenkorn believes police and the State Prosecutor's Office share the part of the blame for Israel's inability to curb trafficking. She says prosecutors agree to ridiculous plea bargain deals - such "shabby" enforcement harms the dignity and rights of the traffickers' victims, she says.

Israel lacks shelters to help victims of trafficking and has been classified with the worst groups of problem countries for this reason, says Chief Superintendent Avraham Davidovitz from the police's investigations branch.

"It's a critical weakness," he says. Providing shelters is a human rights need. Beyond that, the lack of shelters makes it hard for the police to protect witnesses who are needed to testify against pimps."

Despite Mizrahi's attention-grabbing admission about organized crime running prostitution, law enforcers have yet to catch up with the major racketeers and the bosses responsible.