Panel urges phasing out IDF soldiers from serving as prison guards of terror inmates

Committee that examined servicemembers’ role following ‘pimping’ scandal says guarding ‘security prisoners’ should be left to professionals; for now, interactions should be limited

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)

A review panel tasked with examining the placement of Israeli soldiers as guards of incarcerated terror inmates in the Israel Prison Service (IPS) recommended that the arrangement be phased out, with professional guards brought in to do the job instead, the Defense Ministry said Thursday.

The gradual process is not likely to begin until 2026, however, according to the recommendations.

The panel’s report was presented to Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who in August established the investigative team, which included senior figures from the Israel Defense Forces, the Defense Ministry, the Public Security Ministry and the Prison Service, as well as a former military adviser on women’s rights. The team was led by Itamar Graf, the deputy director and head of the planning division at the Defense Ministry.

The panel was established to examine a years-long arrangement whereby military conscripts can be drafted to the IPS as guards. Bombshell claims have been made recently by former soldiers of sexual assault and rape by Palestinian terror inmates, referred to in Israel as security prisoners, with the complicity of prison commanders. At least six women have come forward this 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 allegations sparked an investigation into the IPS’ handling of the issue and Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered a reevaluation of the agreement between the IDF and the Prison Service. The arrangement was established in 2005 when the responsibility of operating prisons with security inmates was transferred from the IDF to the IPS, the report noted.

The plan entailed having some soldiers perform their mandatory army service at prison sites and was initially approved for three years with regular reauthorization since.

The panel, however, “did not deal with past events… but examined the situation today,” and said the IPS had “significantly improved” the conditions of both male and female soldiers “with an emphasis on preventing sexual harassment.”

Nonetheless, the team recommended in its report that “the task of guarding incarcerated security prisoners be assigned to a staff of professional guards” — the same as with criminal prisoners.

Gilboa Prison, February 28, 2013. (Moshe Shai/Flash90/File)

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

They noted that in their work, which included interviews with male and female servicemembers who served in the IPS, they found that these soldiers felt “a deep sense of belonging to the IDF” and a “feeling that they are performing an important national task for the security of the country.”

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

Although certain tasks like physically searching prisoners/visitors require gender considerations, “there is no place or justification for distinguishing between the sexes” beyond that, the report said.

Head of the IPS human resources division, Tami Ezra, attends a Knesset discussion regarding the sexual abuse claims in Gilboa Prison, August 3, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The defense and public security ministers 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.

Gantz, as defense minister, oversees the mandatory conscription of Israeli soldiers, and Barlev oversees the Prison Service.

In August, a former soldier who went by the pseudonym Hila said in bombshell allegations that she had been repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by a Palestinian security prisoner while she served at Gilboa Prison.

Former Gilboa Prison chief Freddy Ben Shitrit, who was not yet in the post when the incidents allegedly took place, has 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 prison break in September 2021 by Palestinian terror convicts, which highlighted a series of shortcomings in the prison’s operations and sparked harsh criticism of the IPS. Ben Shitrit has been fired over the prison break incident.

Most Popular
read more: