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Minister says female soldiers to continue guarding terror inmates unless law changes

Barlev says deployment of IDF troops in prisons is written in law; defense minister says won’t renew agreement unless ‘minds are put at ease’ after allegations of rape, assault

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev attends a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev attends a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on June 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev on Wednesday rejected a request from Defense Minister Benny Gantz to end a years-long agreement that allows military conscripts to be drafted into the Israel Prison Service (IPS), saying that it would require a change in the law.

The request was made following claims made by a former soldier that she was repeatedly raped by a Palestinian security prisoner — meaning a detainee accused of terror offenses.

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.

Barlev said that barring a legislative change, female soldiers will continue to serve as security personnel and in administrative positions in prisons, though they are not supposed to have direct contact with inmates.

Earlier this week Gantz wrote a letter to Barlev — who as public security minister oversees the IPS — demanding female conscripted soldiers kept away from contact with Palestinian terror convicts until the rape allegations are investigated. He also said he would review the entire arrangement under which both male and female conscripts serve in prisons.

In a response to the letter, Barlev noted that Gantz’s demands would require changes in legislation and that a recent evaluation by the Israel Defense Forces found that soldiers — both male and female — who are serving in prisons are satisfied with their deployments.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Jerusalem on July 26, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Barlev said he agrees with Gantz “regarding the feeling of shock” over the rape allegations made by the female guard.

“The acts as they are described are horrific,” Barlev wrote.

But, he stressed, female soldiers are not supposed to be in direct contact with security prisoners and are only to be involved in securing sites and administrative duties.

“Any positioning of a female conscript in the presence of a security prisoner is contrary to the guidelines and will be met with the utmost severity of the law,” Barlev said.

Regarding Gantz’s insistence that soldiers no longer be tasked with guarding security prisoners at all, Barlev pointed to a 2005 agreement that transferred responsibility of security prisoners from the army to the Israel Prison Service. The plan entailed having male and female soldiers performing their mandatory army service at prison sites, and is written into the Security Service Law. It was initially approved for three years and has been regularly reauthorized ever since.

As a result, Barlev wrote, “a change in the designation and the manner of placing conscripted soldiers in the prison service requires a change in legislation in the Knesset.”

Barlev noted that the regulations were renewed in December 2021 for a year. At the time, the Knesset Public Security Committee and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee discussed the matter, as the details of alleged abuse of females soldiers at the Gilboa Prison had already come to light.

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

Barlev noted that the IDF was ordered to examine the conditions of all service personnel who are allocated roles outside of the military framework, including the Prison Service.

An IDF inspection team report found “that all the service personnel in the Prison Service are satisfied with their service and even feel pride in the service they are doing. Thus, most of those serving expressed their willingness to continue serving in the Prison Service on a permanent basis,” Barlev quoted.

“The service personnel even mentioned to the inspection team that they are briefed on the matter of sexual harassment upon their admission to the unit” and that they are aware of where incidents of abuse should be reported, Barlev wrote to Gantz.

Still, Barlev proposed further discussions on the matter between the ministries of public security and defense.

Speaking at a faction meeting in the Knesset of his Blue and White-New Hope alliance, Gantz said he had received Barlev’s letter and agreed on the need for an inter-ministerial team to work on the matter.

“If necessary, we will bring the issue to legislation,” Gantz said according to a statement from his office.

But he warned that if a solution is not found, he will not renew the prison guard agreement at the end of the year.

“If no adequate solution is found that puts the mind at ease — I will not renew the order allowing the service in four months,” Gantz said.

Earlier this week, the Ynet news site reported that a Palestinian prisoner convicted of terrorism, Mahmoud Atallah, was being investigated by police over sexual assault while behind bars.

Atallah has been in solitary confinement since 2018 over a scandal in which an intelligence officer allegedly “pimped” female guards to him and to other Palestinian inmates, at his request.

A former soldier, who has not been named publicly, said last Thursday in bombshell allegations that she was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by a Palestinian security prisoner while she served at Gilboa Prison, with reports identifying the man as Atallah.

According to a Channel 12 news report Monday, Atallah had told security officials as early as eight months ago that he had sexual relations with a female soldier at the prison. Despite this, the case was not further investigated at the time.

On Tuesday, another former guard at Gilboa prison told Channel 12 of her own alleged assault at the hands of Atallah.

Screen capture from an August 2, 2022, interview with a former Gilboa Prison guard, ‘Shirli,’ who alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a Palestinian security prisoner. (Channel 12)

Last month, Barlev approved the firing of the intelligence officer at the prison over claims he “pimped” female guards. Rani Basha had been on leave since November 2021, when Freddy Ben Shitrit, the warden of the prison in northern Israel, made bombshell remarks regarding the allegations.

The decision to reopen the probe into the claims also came after Ben Shitrit — who was not at the prison when the incidents allegedly took place — said female soldiers who were guards at the prison had been pressed into serving as eye candy or worse for some inmates, as a means of keeping prisoners from getting out of hand.

Ben Shitrit made the claims during testimony before a commission of inquiry probing last September’s prison break by Palestinian terror convicts, which highlighted a series of shortcomings in the prison’s operations and sparked harsh criticism of the Prison Service.

Harassment by criminal convicts

As the accusations that female soldiers were assaulted by security prisoners roil the country, the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday that a senior female prison guard claimed that are dozens of complaints every year of women assaulted by prisoners convicted of criminal offenses.

“Harassment is almost daily,” said the guard, who was not named in the report. “We are talking about sex offenses, indecent acts, verbal harassment, and also attempted sexual assaults.”

Illustrative: A bus of the Israeli Prison Service transporting prisoners, December 18, 2011. (Uri Lenz/FLASH90)

The guard said that the abuse is directed at female social workers who sit alone with prisoners, education officers, and training officers.

She said that a criminal case is opened against offending inmates, they are punished with solitary confinement for a while or some other measure, and then returned to their wing or moved to another prison.

Former male prison officers confirmed the claims, saying “that is the reality,” Kan reported.

“There is no doubt that naturally due to their work they are exposed to complicated challenges and realities that not everyone can or is willing to accept,” the IPS told the station in a statement.

The IPS said it does what it can ensure a safe work environment and that it has a zero tolerance policy to sexual assaults.

In another blow to the IPS, a male prison guard at the Neve Tirtzah women’s prison has been put on leave as the service investigates claims that he had sex with a prisoner, Kan reported.

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