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Seeking prostitution services is now illegal in Israel

First-time offenders will be fined NIS 2,000 ($530), with the sum doubled for repeat offenses within three years, as new law comes into effect

Illustrative: A prostitute on a street in south Tel Aviv on January 1, 2013. (Flash90)
Illustrative: A prostitute on a street in south Tel Aviv on January 1, 2013. (Flash90)

A law criminalizing the procuring of sex services went into effect on Friday, over the objections of some government offices and welfare groups, who sought a delay to ensure government rehabilitation programs were ready to aid the thousands of newly out-of-work prostitutes.

The new law, approved a year and a half ago by the Knesset, punishes those caught seeking the services of a prostitute, as well as those apprehended in a location chiefly used for prostitution, such as a brothel.

First-time offenders will be fined NIS 2,000 ($530), with the sum doubled for repeat offenses within three years. Prosecutors will also be empowered to indict prostitution clients in certain cases, with a maximum penalty fine of NIS 75,300 ($20,400).

The law was designed to come into effect mid-2020 to give the state time to form rehabilitation mechanisms for sex workers and allow them to find alternative livelihoods.

Illustrative photo of a prostitute outside a brothel in south Tel Aviv, looking at a policewoman nearby, September 21, 2008. (Kobi Gideon / FLASH90)

But LGBT and women’s rights groups had sought to postpone the law’s implementation, saying the government has yet to fully establish and fund the rehabilitation program for prostitutes that was created under the new law.

Two LGBT and transgender rights organizations had petitioned the High Court of Justice for a delay.

“Women and men who enter the cycle of prostitution to earn a living cannot escape if the authorities don’t extend a hand,” said Hila Peer, chairwoman of Aguda-The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, one of the groups behind the petition.

She accused the state of “insensitively abandoning the weakest population.”

Community Empowerment and Advancement Minister Orly Levy-Abekasis earlier this week asked the Justice Ministry to postpone the law’s implementation.

The Public Security Ministry had also sought a delay, citing the police’s inability to enforce the new law and the government’s failure to set up mandatory seminars for offenders to raise awareness of the dangers of prostitution, which had been proposed on top of the fines.

But Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn said Friday he saw no reason to heed the request.

“Women are not property and their bodies are not for rent at any price,” tweeted Nissenkorn. “Despite the pressures, I refused to postpone the law against seeking prostitution services and it goes into effect today.”

Illustrative: Demonstrators take part in a protest against prostitution outside the Gogo strip club in Tel Aviv strip club, December 22, 2016. (FLASH90 )

In 2016, the Welfare Ministry estimated there were 11,420-12,730 sex workers driving the country’s NIS 1.2 billion ($318 million) industry. According to that report, 71 percent of prostitutes said they began sex work out of financial desperation, and 76% said they would leave the industry if they could.

Punishing prostitution clients was first introduced by Sweden in its 1999 Sex Purchase Act — since adopted by Norway, Iceland, Canada, France and Northern Ireland — which requires consumers to pay a fine or face up to six months in jail, even as prostitution technically remains legal.

The new law is part of a wider government effort to outlaw sex services in Israel.

Last year, then-state attorney Shai Nitzan published a directive on enforcement of prostitution laws under which lap dances are considered prostitution if there is intimate contact between the dancer and the client.

Police then launched a wide crackdown on strip clubs, issuing closure orders for Tel Aviv’s last three joints in February.

Tel Aviv’s Pussycat strip club, shut down in a separate legal and municipal funding fight amid allegations it was illegally running a brothel, is now a Jewish values center.

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