After sex abuse scandal, ministers agree soldiers will stop guarding terror convicts

Defense Minister Gallant, National Security Minister Ben Gvir say change to be implemented within 6 months; requires approval from cabinet, Knesset committee

A prison guard stands at Gilboa prison in northern Israel, on September 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Illustrative: A prison guard stands at Gilboa prison in northern Israel, on September 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Conscripted Israel Defense Forces soldiers will stop serving as prison guards in sections housing convicted terrorists within six months, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir announced Sunday, due to repeated incidents of sexual abuse by inmates in those wards.

The move comes two weeks after Ben Gvir issued an order to that effect to the Israel Prison Service (IPS), and six 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 IDF soldiers serving as prison guards, and that some IPS guards had “pimped out” the conscripts to placate inmates.

In a joint statement, Gallant and Ben Gvir said they agreed there was “an urgent need to stop placing soldiers in the IPS” due to the revelations.

Over the coming six months, according to the statement, Ben Gvir’s ministry will act to replace the IDF soldiers with professional IPS officers.

The statement said the proposal would be brought for approval at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, after which it has to be okayed by the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Ben Gvir said last month that IDF soldiers 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.

Meanwhile, conscripted soldiers will continue to be placed in the Israel Police due to the “important role they fill in protecting the country’s security,” the joint statement said. The directive enabling that will be extended by three more years.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks to reporters after an assessment at the IDF’s West Bank headquarters, January 29, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

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

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.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir leads an Otzma Yehudit faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 30, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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 terror inmates — often referred to as 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 was 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 any 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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