Knesset members from across the political spectrum threatened to launch a parliamentary inquiry Monday over the failure by law enforcement and welfare services to adequately tackle and prevent a growing number of minors becoming involved in the sex industry.

Speaking at a joint session of the Knesset’s sub-committee on Trafficking in Women and the Committee for the Rights of the Child, MKs Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) and Zevulun Orlev (National Religious), the chairpersons of each committee declared that after a year of parliamentary hearings and requests for information from government authorities on the matter, little has changed.

“I am not willing to sit with them one more time and hear that the numbers are rising and nothing is being done,” stated Orlev, directing his anger at representatives of the Israel Police, who failed to produce exact information on the number of arrests, or even case files opened involving minors working in the sex industry, especially for online services.

Following the meeting, Zuaretz told The Jerusalem Post, that over the past week requests for information from the police, state prosecutors and even the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs had still failed to shed light on a phenomenon that non-profit organizations working with children claim is growing and expanding daily.

Monday’s packed committee meeting heard from at-risk youth organization Elem, which pointed to a dramatic increase in the number of teenagers engaging in sexual acts for money or other types of payback, as well as a decline in the age of youngsters becoming involved in such activities.

The organization, which runs a program called Awake At Night that helps at-risk youth get off the streets, said its volunteers had encountered some 621 youth in just Tel Aviv and Haifa – some as young as 12 – that were involved in some form of prostitution.

Elem’s Executive Director Efrat Shaprut told the Post following the meeting that she was happy with the committee’s decision to launch a parliamentary inquiry into the phenomenon and why the authorities seem to be doing little to prevent it.

“I think it is an important step,” she said. “Elem’s work and follow-up treatment by the welfare services is simply not enough. The police and prosecution also need to be involved by catching those who using minors sexually.”

One of the more alarming trends noted by the organization during the hearing is the increase in online sites that use underage girls – and in some cases boys – to promote “discreet” services ranging from simply chatting, voyeurism and, in some cases, conventional prostitution.

Asaf Rajuan, director of Awake at Night, highlighted the increase in websites, including popular social-networking site Facebook, which promote sex with teenage girls.

“The new pimp is the website,” commented Rajuan in the hearing. “The Internet is wide open, no one needs to register the service as a business.

Despite the fact that sex with a minor is against the law, since 2000 there has only been 35 cases opened by the police against websites that offer such services.”

“Action must be taken against those who own websites promoting this kind of prostitution,” declared MK Orly Levy-Abekasis (Yisrael Beitenu), who was joined by a range of MKs including Kadima members Marina Solodkin, Shlomo Molla, Ze’ev Bielski, Yoel Hasson and Yisrael Beitenu MK Anastassia Michaeli.

“You do not need a lot of manpower to do that. We know there are minors working there, so it should not be a big deal to prosecute those who are running these websites,” continued Levy-Abekasis.

“When it comes to underage girls aged only 12 or 13, the question of whether she has agreed to do this is not relevant because under the law it is considered rape,” she said. “The fact that the victims do not see themselves as such, and welfare workers say they ‘messaging’ the customer proves how important it is to education youth.”

In response to the criticisms, representatives of the Internal Security Ministry, which oversees police operations, said that their own information painted a completely different picture of the situation.

Over the past decade, 88 cases have been opened by police to investigate individuals soliciting minors, and from those there have been nine convictions. In Monday’s meeting, police officials said their work is focused more on raising awareness to this phenomenon and dealing with online crime.

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