Tel Aviv police department said Monday it has uncovered a human trafficking network and prostitution ring operating in discreet apartments under the guise of providing massage services.
The head of the of the network is believed to be a 50-year-old woman from Ramat Gan, who is a former Israeli athletic champion who represented the country in international competitions. The woman was arrested Sunday along with her former partner and a number of other suspects.
According to the police, an undercover investigation conducted in association with the Tax Authority and National Insurance Institute found that for several years the suspects operated a sophisticated network in the central cities of Givatayim, Ramat Gan, Petah Tikva and Ra'anana.
The network’s victims were often recruited through advertising on Russian-language websites in Israel and abroad, under the headlines "Masseuses needed - high wages."
The investigation also found that the network often advertised its "services" on sex and massage portals found on various websites.
The method of luring in victims is believed to have been orchestrated by the former athlete, who is suspected of heading the entire network together with her former partner, a 51-year-old Ramat Gan resident.
Six other suspects were detained in the raid, on suspicion of taking in the network’s operations, with each allegedly having a defined role and responsibilities.
Those involved in the network are also under investigation for alleged money laundering offenses running to millions of shekels and other tax offenses.
Because the network allegedly continued its operations during the coronavirus pandemic, the suspects are also accused of violating public health orders.
The attorney for the main suspect, Orit Hayon, said: "In an initial conversation with [the suspect], she denied any connection [to trafficking or sex workers] and claimed that she was only dealing in massages."
Following the arrests, Ayelet Dayan, the associate director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution in Israel, praised the arrests on Sunday, but called on the government to do more to crack down on human trafficking.
“The successful police action tonight proves what we have consistently claimed: Trafficking in women in Israel is alive and well. The State of Israel is not doing enough to stop the phenomenon," she said.
"In January 2019, the government decided to devise a multi-year plan to combat human trafficking,” said Dayan, “but to date, the government's decision has been neither budgeted nor implemented.”
Regarding the newly uncovered network Dayan said: “ The state must recognize all women trafficked and exploited as sex workers as victims of human trafficking and ensure that they receive all the rights they deserve.
"The Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution calls on police and prosecutors to bring the network operators to justice, not settle for charges of traveling abroad for the purposes of prostitution, but file serious charges of trafficking in human beings."