Prostitutes burnt to death in Tel Aviv arson attacks

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The Independent Online

The ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, when Jews lament the destruction of the temples of Solomon and Herod, is second only to Yom Kippur among their solemn fasts. Six days later, the calendar swings from sackcloth to ecstasy with the local equivalent of Valentine's Day, celebrated by guitar-toting young Israelis with all-night rock and romance beneath the stars.

The ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, when Jews lament the destruction of the temples of Solomon and Herod, is second only to Yom Kippur among their solemn fasts. Six days later, the calendar swings from sackcloth to ecstasy with the local equivalent of Valentine's Day, celebrated by guitar-toting young Israelis with all-night rock and romance beneath the stars.

This year, the week, beginning on 10 August and ending on the 16th, was marked by more zeal than love. A vicious campaign against the sex trade in sleazy south Tel Aviv started on the fast day itself, when four escort services and sex shops were set ablaze. It climaxed with an early morning fire in a ground-floor brothel at 51 Golomb Street, near a decaying old bus station haunted by drug pushers, footloose foreign workers and homeless Israelis sleeping rough.

The charred bodies of four prostitutes who had been asphyxiated by smoke were found trapped between the buckled steel door and the barred windows of the shabby concrete building. All the signs pointed to arson. Two more escort services were attacked the same night, although there were no other casualties.

Police launched a murder inquiry into the deaths of the four women, a mixture of Russian immigrants and veteran Israelis, and stepped up security on the 150 brothels and sex shops of Israel's "Sin City".

By this weekend no arrests had been made. The timing of the attacks points towards religious fanatics trying to cleanse the Holy Land of vice. "Modesty patrols", more common in Jerusalem than Tel Aviv, often attack women for showing too much leg or even elbow, and set fire to bus shelter adverts for swimwear or cosmetics. But the Tel Aviv police chief, Commander Shlomo Aharonisk, said: "We do not rule out any possibility, from ultra-Orthodox Jews to turf wars between rival gangs."

Yael Dayan, chairperson of the parliamentary women's rights committee, who has often criticised the police for not taking sex crime seriously enough, said yesterday: "They are putting a lot of work into it this time. I expect to see results within a few days."

Police are hunting a serial arsonist, acting alone or with a team. His summer offensive has renewed pressure, from women's and human rights groups, for the government to crack down on the highly organised flesh trade run by local criminals and a newer Russian element.

According to police, about 1,000 prostitutes work in Tel Aviv. Hundreds of women are smuggled into Israel every year from the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Some know they are to work as prostitutes; others think they are coming to be waitresses, dancers or nurses.

The gangs take their passports. Pimps buy and sell the women for $3,000-$20,000 each, pay them badly, if at all, and keep them in conditions akin to bonded labour. They insist that they cover the gangs' investment, receiving up to 20 clients a day, before they see any money. If the women complain to the police or are picked up in raids, they are sent home penniless. "These pimps are so greedy," a woman identified as Alina told the Israel Women's Network before she was deported to Ukraine.

In May, Amnesty International accused Israel of failing to take action to stamp out the trade. "This is so even though many of the women have been subjected to human rights abuses such as enslavement or torture, including rape and other forms of sexual abuse, by traffickers, pimps, or others involved in the sex industry," it said.

Spurred by the Amnesty report, the Knesset outlawed trafficking and pimping, although prostitution itself is still legal. Offenders convicted of smuggling and selling women face up to 16 years in prison, pimps between seven and 10 years. The police have set up a special unit, working with Interpol.

Boris Yasser, an 18-year-old from the port city of Ashdod, was arrested in June, accused of helping his father to smuggle four women into Israel from Ukraine. He is now on trial charged with kidnapping, threats, forgery, assault, pimping, rape and holding prisoners.

"The police are taking these things very seriously now," Yael Dayan acknowledged.

Too late, though, for the four blackened victims, one of them still unidentified, of Tel Aviv's Valentine's Day inferno.

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