Some 30 suspected pedophiles were arrested in early-morning raids across the country on Tuesday, in the largest police operation against alleged sex offenders to date.

The arrests came after officers from the computer crimes unit of the Central Police District posed as a young girl and a young boy on popular chat forums, attracting the attention of suspects who lurked on the sites and preyed on minors.

After getting their targets to enter personal one-to-one chats, the suspects made phone contact, and the calls were answered by an undercover female officer pretending to be a child.

Police were shocked at the ease with which innocent online conversations quickly became perversely sexual. In some cases, suspects carried out lewd acts on web cameras, and encouraged sexual acts on the part of the children they believed they were talking to.

In other cases, suspects sought to arrange a meeting for the purpose of holding intercourse with minors, and were filmed by police waiting at meeting points and speaking on the phone with the undercover officer. One suspect allegedly arrived with condoms.

Meeting spots included a bus stop and a forest in central Israel.

The suspects hail from all walks of life in mainstream society. Some are married with young children of their own. They include employees of security companies, media communications firms and drivers. Some are highly educated.

The investigation began when a man caught with pedophilic material on his computer agreed to teach police how to enter the online networks and lure other pedophiles into chats.

Police have stressed that the suspects loitered on mainstream ordinary chat rooms that had no connection to sexual content, and urged vigilance on the part of parents, saying that the online activities of children must be monitored.

“We were exposed to very difficult comments,” said Dep.-Cmdr. Moti Aderi, head of the Central District’s Investigations Branch.

The next stage of the investigation is to determine just how many children were contacted by the suspects. To that end, detectives will sift through the computers of suspects to search for evidence of communications with minors.

At 3:30 a.m., Central District chief Cmdr. Bentsi Sao addressed officers who were about to head out to addresses and make arrests.

Speaking at Central District headquarters in Ramle, Sao said police had three goals in the investigation.

“We want to distance sex offenders from the kids, increase our deterrence against them and raise the alertness of parents to the dangers inherent in home computers,” he said. “In the coming hours, dozens of suspects will be arrested. I am sure this will expand even further and more arrests will be made,” he added. “We know crime is drifting from the streets to computers.”

Sao urged the officers to “conquer your anger and emotions despite the disturbing offenses. Our professionalism is part of the operation’s success.”

Sao later admitted to being “very shocked by the severity of the offenses. I’m concerned for the welfare of the children.”

He said that just as parents accompany their children when they cross a busy street, so too they must accompany their children “in the virtual world and all of its dangers.”

The investigation did not follow any police complaint or intelligence, but rather, was the result of police initiative, the district chief said.

“The suspects are not known criminals. They live among us, and on the surface, look totally normal,” he added. “We are amazed and worried that within 10 minutes of being on an online chat, obscene sexual content surfaced,” Sao said.

Three suspects aged 35 to 56 who came to pre-arranged meetings have already been arrested in recent days.

The undercover female officer who spoke on the phone to the suspects said she was most stunned by her first encounter.

“I knew about pedophiles, but I didn’t realize how dangerous they are,” she said.

“As soon as they see a 12-year-old online, they jump on them. They insisted on meetings, and tried to lure me with perfume and money,” the officer, who cannot be identified, added.

“I would say that I was shy and a minor, but they told me not to be embarrassed, that they weren’t shy,” she said. “Young innocent girls are not aware of the dangers.

It is up to the parents to make sure that the web usage is safe.”

The Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child called an emergency meeting following the arrests on Tuesday.

“Arrests of dozens of suspects from all parts of society shows the how complicated this phenomenon is. Until now, sufficient resources were not allocated towards reducing it,” committee chairwoman Orly Levy-Abecassis (Yisrael Beytenu) said.

“Only an interministerial effort and a change in legislation, as well as budgetary allowances and good planning, will stop this phenomenon that threatens every child.”

Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.

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