Israel police issued only 12 reports to users of prostitution services in the six months since enforcement against soliciting or patronizing prostitution began, after police warned implementing the new law would be challenging.
Before the law was passed in the Knesset, the police warned that they would be unable to enforce it effectively due to a lack of resources. The limited enforcement comes as recent years saw a decline in the number of indictments filed for prostitution-related offenses.
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The law was supposed to come into effect last July, but its implementation was postponed until December 30th by then-Public Security Minister Amir Ohana. The law defines the use of prostitution or an attempt to do so as an administrative offense that carries a 2,000 shekels ($614) fine, and 4,000 shekels for a repeat offense.
A 2016 survey by the Ministries of Welfare and Public Security indicated that there were about 14,000 people working in prostitution: 95 percent were women and the rest men. A study examining implementation of the law will be published in 2024.
The director of the hotline to combat trafficking in women and prostitution, Ofir Abu, told Haaretz that “12 reports in half a year is not what the legislator intended. Enforcement hasn’t changed. I hope that the new government and the new minister (Omer Bar-Lev), who hasn’t opposed the law, will make the change. We won’t allow the law to become a dead letter."
“There’s a call here to the Public Security Ministry to impose order, it’s a moral obligation. Every second that this isn’t done, there are more women in prostitution who are exploited and more men who continue to harm them,” he added. The police replied that they are “Working to enforce offenses that exploit and objectify human beings, in order to prosecute offenders.”
The government was also supposed to provide budgets for welfare frameworks for women in prostitution. Welfare workers in the field report that although they received the money, there is a shortage of therapeutic resources for these women in Jerusalem and Eilat.
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Yael Gur, director of the Tel Aviv Health Department’s Levinsky Clinic, said that “The demand for treatment here has increased by dozens of percentage points, and we see it mainly among men and transgender people.” She said that there still is no sufficient solution in Tel Aviv for men and for transgender men and women in prostitution.
Regarding fines, Gur said that many women say that since the implementation of the law they feel more protected, because they now have tools for dealing with abusive clients. But she doesn’t see the police in the streets. “Enforcement is minor, and when it exists, the police are confused. They don’t know whether they’re supposed to enforce the law against the men or the women. We hear stories about policemen who come to the brothel, saying that they came because of the new law – and take the women for questioning. They’re not the criminals here. That creates great confusion among the women who think that the law was changed and that at present, there’s a ban against engaging in prostitution."
Leaving the brothels
In the past four years, the number of indictments for crimes related to prostitution has declined from 110 in 2017 to 43 in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began. In 2018 there were 99 indictments, and 76 the following year. The police explained the decline by “an increase in the quality of the files” that were submitted, and a decrease in the number of brothels in Israel. The number of files sent to the State Prosecutor’s Office fell by 57 percent, and those sent to the police prosecution department fell by 49 percent.
Of the 328 indictments filed from 2017 to 2020, the most common offense was “keeping a place for the purpose of prostitution.” The number of indictments declined from 82 to 14 by the end of the period. The police said that decline is due to a change in the prostitution industry, which has been transferred to discreet apartments and marketed on the internet.
Naama Goldberg, founder and director of the Don’t Stand Aside NGO to help women in prostitution, said that “Prostitution today is mainly internet prostitution; it’s not connected to the law but to technological development."
During the pandemic, Don’t Stand Aside reported that in the past year, the organization received almost four times as many requests. Goldberg said that “Whether due to the coronavirus or due to the law, every day we get requests from two to five entirely new women asking for help. We don’t ask about their situation in prostitution, but from those who tell us of their own volition, we aren’t hearing about a decline in prostitution. Everything is back to the way it was; we aren’t seeing a slowdown in the field, nor policemen or enforcement.”
The police replied that “In 50 percent of the cases in 2020 indictments were filed, while in 2019 it was 30 percent and in 2018 - 18 percent. The change in statistics is due to a change in prostitution, since there’s a decline in brothels and in reports about brothels, and a transition to discreet apartments. Some change represents a transition to marketing sex services on the internet and providing them in the client’s home, in a hotel or in a discreet apartment. And in the past year and a half, due to COVID-19, we saw a decline in prostitution.”
Last August, 15 organizations, including Achoti – for Women in Israel, Argaman – Organization of Working Women, Ma’avarim – Israeli Trans Community - turned to the Public Security Ministry and to MKs who participated in the discussion about implementing the law, with a request to provide rehabilitation for women in prostitution. They wrote that “The government program for eliminating prostitution offers no solution for the most critical needs of sex workers and survivors of prostitution: a livelihood that enables basic survival, shelter, security and protection from violence.”
They said that the attitude of the police and of local governments towards the women has deteriorated. “Today, thousands of sex workers and survivors of prostitution are on the verge of poverty that will harm them and family members dependent on them – children and elderly parents. Therefore, and in order to prevent a serious humanitarian crisis, eligibility for unemployment payments and for rent assistance should be made accessible to them, by creating a suitable track or easing/adapting the criteria for eligibility, and refraining from restrictions on dual allowances. Unemployment payments must reflect the loss of income due to the law and the pandemic.”