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The United States may rank Israel among the group of countries not taking action against human trafficking - a move that could result in the imposition of economic sanctions.

In its response to questions on the matter from the U.S. administration, the Justice Ministry noted that while Israel has seen grave cases involving the exploitation of foreign workers, and even isolated incidents that can be defined as trade for the purposes of labor, these cases do not meet the U.S. legal definition of human trafficking.

The U.S. State Department publishes an annual report on international human trafficking, ranking countries according to their efforts to eradicate the trend. In 2001, when the report was first published, Israel was ranked on the lowest tier, among countries that do not meet the minimum standards in the struggle against human trafficking and are not making any efforts to improve.

Over the last three years, however, Israel moved up a notch, and is now included among countries that are making an effort to get better.

Justice Ministry officials fear, however, that the upcoming report, which will be published in June, will again see Israel on the lowest tier. "Israel's position - that foreign workers are exploited but not to the extent of trafficking - was rejected by the Americans," Justice Ministry attorney Miri Sasson told the Knesset committee on foreign workers this week.

Also addressing the panel, the director of the Foreign Ministry's human rights division, Daniel Maron, said: "The United States has no doubt that there is human trafficking in Israel."

One of the central criteria stipulated in U.S. law as a minimal standard for combating the phenomenon is harsh punishment. Human trafficking in the United States carries a penalty of 16 years in jail, whereas in Israel the maximum penalty is one year.

Outgoing panel chairman MK Ran Cohen (Yahad) has asked Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to appoint someone to coordinate the state's fight against trafficking in humans.