In the late 1990s, Israelis began to hear about the major problem of sex trafficking.
The problem continued for years and as recently as 2005 there were an estimated 3,000 women trafficked in to Israel for sex.
An active effort to tackle the problem reduced the flow and by 2008, most observers agree, there were hardly any women entering Israel by land for the sex trade.
For the first time, this year Israel is ranked in the US State Department’s trafficking report as a “first tier” state in terms of combating trafficking.
How did the change happen? A hard-and-soft approach.
There were important legal changes to scare traffickers away from their trade. The Anti-Trafficking Law of 2006 increased penalties for trafficking, prescribing up to 16 years’ imprisonment for the trafficking of an adult.
The victims, knowing that they would sit in prison until and during legal proceedings and then face deportation, were scared to report their traffickers.
So the government opened a shelter for trafficked women, meaning that they did not need to stay in prison while proceedings were taking place.
It also worked out a system to give the women a year-long visa, allowing them to work in Israel and put their lives back together after a trial.
NGOs also run shelters and provide services for trafficked women.
At the end of trials, Israel helps victims with their return home and courts award compensation. While there have not been hundreds of trials, there have been dozens — enough to act as a major deterrent for traffickers.
As time has gone on, the state has become less and less willing to reach plea bargains with alleged sex traffickers.
Last year, there were 18 investigations into sex trafficking. 15 people were convicted, with sentences ranging from eight months to five years’ imprisonment.
Some professionals who work with trafficked women suspect — and this has never been confirmed — that there have been other, less transparent factors that have helped with the clamp-down on trafficking.
They believe that in the past the military turned a blind eye to some sex trafficking in return for Bedouin smugglers agreeing not to smuggle arms or aid terrorists.
These understandings are said to have been terminated, partly due to the repeated violation of the agreements, partly due to Israel’s border with Egypt becoming a greater security risk and partly due to pressure from anti-trafficking groups.
While the army’s role in reducing trafficking is unclear, the part played by police is public knowledge.
Over the last three to four years, officers have targeted traffickers at every possible point, from their attempts to enter Israel to the towns and villages from which women are “distributed”.
“An important part of our programme has been to empower police with extra operations on the borders, really targeting the heart of the problem,” said Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
Superintendent Rosenfeld said the most recent development helping to stamp out sex trafficking was the completion this month of the main stretch of Israel’s new fence along its border with Egypt.
The fence has stopped another type of trafficking as well — the trafficking of African asylum seekers in to Israel.
In January 2012, 2,153 illegal immigrants entered Israel, compared to the 36 who entered last month — all of whom were placed in detention.