Israeli police said on Thursday they have arrested a sect leader suspected of enslaving and sexually abusing 17 women and the 40 children he had with them.

Goel Ratzon, 59, is accused of keeping at least 57 women and children in cramped apartments in several locations in the Tel Aviv area, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

In one case, police raided a three-bedroom apartment where 10 women and 17 children were found in a "terrible state", living in "horrible conditions", he said.

Ratzon has been known for several years to head a sect of women who were said to adulate him, have sex with him and raise his children.

Police suspect that Ratzon also raped and impregnated his own daughters.

The grey-bearded, long-haired man, who was arrested on Monday following a lengthy undercover investigation, held the women under his strict control, enforcing a draconian book of rules that specified behaviour and punishments.

Police said Ratzon had instructed the women and children to commit suicide "if anything happened to him".

Speaking to reporters in court, Ratzon's lawyer Shlomtzion Gabai denied all charges and insisted the women were not held against their will.