Ben Gvir orders Prison Service to put an end to soldiers guarding terror convicts

National security minister says move must be carried out within six months, after expert panel suggested change be phased in gradually through 2026, following sex abuse allegations

A prison guard is seen in a watchtower at Gilboa prison, in northern Israel, September 6, 2021. (Flash90)
A prison guard is seen in a watchtower at Gilboa prison, in northern Israel, September 6, 2021. (Flash90)

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir issued an order on Wednesday to permanently halt the placement of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers as prison guards for incarcerated terror inmates within a timeframe of six months.

The move comes more than five months after then-defense minister Benny Gantz ordered an investigation into the arrangement last August, following bombshell accusations that convicted terrorists had assaulted and raped female soldiers serving as prison guards, and that some Israel Prison Service (IPS) guards had “pimped out” the conscripts to placate inmates.

In a statement on Wednesday, Ben Gvir said IDF soldiers would no longer serve in the wings of high-security prisons that house terror inmates, but would continue to work in the Prison Service on the “second level of protection,” which includes guarding the building, with only limited interactions with prisoners.

Ben Gvir said the decision comes in the wake of “a number of serious incidents of harm to male and female soldiers serving in the IPS,” culminating in the accusation of pimping out female guards.

The minister said the IPS must be prepared to make such a change within six months, and replace the soldiers with “veteran and experienced prison guards.”

It is not immediately clear if the Prison Service has enough trained personnel to make such an immediate move.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on January 3, 2023. (Atef Safadi/Pool Photo via AP)

In August, Gantz issued a letter to then-public security minister Omer Barlev demanding that conscripted soldiers not be allowed in the same prison wings as Palestinian terror convicts until the rape allegations were fully investigated.

It is not immediately clear if the soldiers serving in prison security wings were since reassigned from their positions.

The arrangement between the IDF and the IPS was established in 2005, when the responsibility of operating prisons with security inmates was transferred from the IDF to the IPS.

In December, a review panel commissioned by Gantz and tasked with examining the issue recommended that the arrangement be phased out. But those recommendations suggested that it be a gradual process that was not likely to begin until 2026.

A number of former soldiers who served as prison guards made bombshell claims of sexual assault and rape by security prisoners, often with the complicity of prison commanders. At least six women came forward last year to allege that female soldiers were regularly “pimped out” for abuse by security prisoners at Gilboa Prison, a high-security incarceration facility in northern Israel.

“The current situation where the IPS depends on receiving external personnel from the IDF [for its work] is not ideal,” the panel members wrote.

A Knesset panel debates the sexual abuse claims in Gilboa Prison, August 3, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The panel said that while it’s impossible to cancel the existing agreement “in one fell swoop,” it should be phased out gradually beginning in 2026.

“The team recommends extending the existing arrangement, which ends on February 15, 2023, shortly after the formation of the new government, for at least three years,” they wrote.

The panel members further urged that the IDF and the Defense Ministry carry out “urgent” work to refine the list of positions assigned to soldiers in prisons.

The team recommended that soldiers be used only to secure and escort prisoners, as laid out in the regulations governing their service in prisons. Furthermore, soldiers should be transferred out of the security wings of regular prisons, where there are fewer military personnel present, and instead, be deployed in large security prisons that have a greater number of soldiers on site.

It called on the IPS to prevent a situation in which a male or female prison guard is left alone or unsupervised with security prisoners.

“Action must also be taken to reduce the interactions in which direct contact is made between the jailer and the security prisoner,” the report said, adding that the IDF must examine its selection procedures as well.

The Gilboa prison in northern Israel on September 6, 2021. (Flash90)

When the report was issued in December, shortly before the new government was sworn in, Gantz and Barlev ordered that preparations be made to implement the recommendations, but noted that legislation required to extend the framework of using soldiers as guards in prisons will need to be addressed by the incoming defense minister.

Reports of female soldiers and prison officers being sexually harassed and assaulted in Israeli prisons surfaced several years ago, but then were largely dropped until last year when a probe was reopened following new allegations.

Last August, a former soldier who went by the pseudonym Hila came forward with allegations that she had been repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by a Palestinian security prisoner while she served at Gilboa Prison.

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