JERUSALEM - Israel continues to be a favorite destination for the trafficking
of women for the sex industry - also known as the white slave trade - and for a
form of modern slavery where migrant laborers from developing countries are
The US State Department placed Israel in Tier 2 position in its 2007
Trafficking in Persons report. Also, an Israeli court ruled against the
country's work visa policy which forces foreign workers into indentured labor
with a single employer.
"Israel was only upgraded to Tier 2 last year," said Romm Lewkowicz, a
spokesman from Israel's Hotline for Migrant
Workers, an advocacy group which defends the rights of foreign workers.
The US State Department divides countries into three tiers. Tier 1 is for
countries that have successfully implemented measures to control trafficking
(most Western countries fall into this category). Tier 2 is for countries that
are trying to eradicate this modern day slavery but still fail to meet the
necessary standards. Tier 3 is reserved for countries that have not addressed
the issue at the most basic level.
In 2006, Israel was on the US State Department's Watch List for people
"This position falls between Tier 2 and Tier 3. The US applies economic
sanctions to those countries which fall into Tier 3, but as we have a strong
economic relationship with the US, Israel was given a warning and placed in a
slightly higher category," said Lewkowicz.
The Israeli government has also faced sharp criticism from the US for its
so-called binding work visa policy which effectively binds foreign migrants -
mostly from developing countries and former Soviet Eastern bloc countries
working in certain industries such as construction, labor, homecare and
agriculture - to the employer stated on their visa.
"The issuance of these visas is subject to the workers staying with the same
employer stated on the visa, and if this condition is broken then the migrant
worker is deemed illegal and liable for deportation without having a chance to
fight the case in court," said Sigal Rosen from Hotline.
This has encouraged unscrupulous employers to withhold payment and extort
employees, knowing they can always replace them and escape penalized.
One of the more notorious cases was the Turks for Tanks deal of 2002. According
to the deal, the Israeli military industry (Ta'as) upgraded about 200 tanks for
Turkey for US$687 million, in one of the country's biggest arms export deals.
As part of the agreement, 800 Turkish workers were granted permits to work in
construction in Israel, after being placed through the Turkish employment
One of Yilmazlar's contractors, Shaheen Yelmaz, arrived in Israel in 2006
dreaming of helping his father pay off his mounting debts after being promised
a good job in Israel for $1,400 a month - a fortune by Turkey's standards where
unemployment is high.
On arrival his passport and mobile phone were taken away and he and other
Turkish workers were accommodated in squalid conditions.
"We were not allowed to leave the premises in the evenings, and were only
allowed out on our day off. And we were not paid for the first three months,"
The Turkish Embassy was unwilling to intervene because of the lucrative deal
Yelmaz and his fellow contractors, most of them with little education, were
coerced into signing blank documents before leaving Turkey that virtually
ensured their dependency on Yilmazlar.
"We were also told by our Israeli employer that if we were unhappy we could
leave. The police would then arrest us as illegals and we would be deported,"
Following a number of similar cases, Hotline and other Israeli human rights
organizations petitioned the Israeli High Court. The court acknowledged the
inequity of the system, but ruled that Yilmazlar's contract with the Israeli
defense industry was unique, and the company's contract with Israel was
However, the court did rule in 2006 that Israel's binding visa policy in
general was illegal, and ordered the state to establish an alternative. Rosen
says they are still waiting for a final response from the state.
Yelmaz was subsequently deported to Turkey, $15,000 in debt, and Israel's
contract with Yilmazlar was renewed.
"While the situation of indentured laborers remains serious, the white trade
trafficking has improved somewhat," said Lewkowicz. "Since the US State
Department put Israel on its Watch List in 2006, the number of women trafficked
to Israel has declined, and it is now against the law to traffic in women.
Furthermore, the government now grants prostitutes a one-year rehabilitation
visa. However, the bureaucracy involved means the granting of these visas is
But new problems have arisen. "Israel is no longer solely an importer of
prostitutes but has become an exporter of them too. Last year we discovered a
new business where Israeli women were being trafficked to the UK and Ireland to
work in the sex industry," Lewkowicz said.
Prostitution has also gone underground in Israel. "Before it was openly done on
the streets, now many of the players have resorted to working from private
apartments, following a police and government crackdown on the trafficking," he
According to the Jerusalem-based Task Force on Human Trafficking (TFHT),
approximately 1,000 of the estimated 10,000 prostitutes in Israel are minors.
Immigrants from the ex-Soviet bloc countries, some involved in the Russian
mafia, manage about 20% of the trade, while the remainder are Israelis, says
A Global Terrorism Analysis report published by the Washington-based Jamestown
Foundation states that many of the trafficked women are smuggled in from
Egypt's Sinai by Bedouins who have also been involved in arms smuggling.
The industry has proved very lucrative for the human traffickers, with each
woman sold in Israel bringing in anywhere between $50,000 to $100,000.
But the state also earns a tidy profit from the white slave trade, according to
Service providers, such as taxi drivers transporting prostitutes, lawyers who
represent the clients, landlords who rent out their premises as brothels, all
pay income tax, and this ultimately arrives in the state's coffers. Not to
mention the cases of corrupt police officers who have also lined their pockets