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‘Prisoners control the guards’: Knesset panel debates Gilboa jail ‘pimping’ scandal

Attorney representing guards alleging sexual assault claims police knew about another case and failed to investigate; lawmakers accuse IPS of trying to whitewash allegations

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

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)
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)

Israeli lawmakers accused the Israel Prison Service (IPS) on Wednesday of trying to whitewash allegations made against its officers during a heated debate regarding the Gilboa Prison scandal, in which senior officers have been accused of “pimping” out female guards to security prisoners.

During a joint debate held by the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Public Security Committee, a female prison guard who was asked to testify said the IPS was “a good place to work.”

Her remarks were cut short by the committee, however, with a number of lawmakers calling the decision to have her testify “a charade put up by the IPS.”

Tami Ezra, who serves as head of the IPS human resources division and was the organization’s representative in the debate, referred to the affair as a “difficult incident that took place years ago” and said IPS procedures were updated in 2018 to address such issues.

“We started addressing cases of sexual harassment of personnel by prisoners in 2018,” she said, without providing an explanation as to why no procedure was put in place before then.

She was interrupted by Religious Zionism lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, who rebuked her use of the phrase “sexual harassment” to describe what he considered to be much worse.

“People are talking as if this is a discussion about sexual harassment. We’re talking about terrorists who pimped out our girls,” he exclaimed.

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)

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, MK Ram Ben Barak, stressed the importance of the IPS as an organization and said that since the affair was first revealed in 2018 “we haven’t heard of similar cases,” indicating, according to him, that the IPS had taken steps to ensure such incidents do not repeat.

But his assertion was disputed by attorney Keren Barak, who represents several female guards claiming abuse. Barak said that just this year the police unit investigating the allegations had been notified of another attempted rape involving the same suspected prisoner.

“In January you got a testimony from someone who experienced an attempted rape in the same method of the raped soldier, in the same place,” said Barak.

“Don’t say you didn’t know about it,” she said while turning to the police representatives in the debate.

“This is a security failure, a moral failure… I understand you want to close the case but there is still much to be done,” Barak added. She also accused the state prosecution, police and IPS of attempting to portray the soldiers as “greedy liars.”

MK’s Ram Ben Barak, right, and Merav Ben Ari, center, lead a Knesset panel debate on the sexual abuse claims in Gilboa Prison, August 03, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

MK Orit Strock of Religious Zionism bemoaned the situation whereby “terrorists are in a place where they are in control of the guards.”

“Our long arm reaches them and then puts them in a luxurious kindergarten,” she said. “What happened to the female guards is terrible, but everything that is happening there is terrible, beyond these events.”

Ilana Yerushalmi, the chief attorney of the northern district, defended the police and the prosecution by noting that the investigation was under a gag order, which has “created the impression that those investigating the case are dragging their feet,” which she insisted was not the case.

“We are turning over every stone to investigate this affair… dozens of people have been investigated since December 2021. Every testimony is being looked into and every effort is being made to reach the truth,” she said.

Meretz MK Michal Rozin directed her criticism inward, blaming the coalition for failing in December to establish a parliamentary committee of inquiry into the affair, as the opposition proposed at the time.

“We begged the public security minister and his deputy to let us vote in favor of establishing a committee… They firmly refused and we were forced to compromise and abstain from voting,” she said. “In the end, we can all express shock, but we are the ones who failed,” she added.

Also attending the debate was Dvora Gonen, a bereaved mother who lost her son, Danny, in a terrorist attack seven years ago. Gonen, who recently announced she was joining the primaries of the far-right Religious Zionism party, accused the state of allowing such incidents to take place under its watch.

“A terrorist commits an act of terror within the prison and rapes a soldier — and it’s all sponsored by the State of Israel,” she charged.

Meretz MK Michal Rozin speaks during a Knesset discussion regarding the sexual abuse claims in Gilboa Prison, August 3, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, 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 IPS, saying that it would require a change in the law.

Gantz replied by saying that if the issue is not resolved via legislation soon, he will not extend the agreement that expires in four months.

Earlier on Wednesday, a senior Prison Service official told Israel Radio that sexual harassment and assault directed at female guards is not limited to Gilboa Prison and happens on a regular basis across all jails in Israel.

“The harassment is on a near-daily basis, we are talking about sex crimes, indecent acts, verbal abuse, and attempts at sexual assault,” the official said, adding that other female employees working in the prison system, like social workers, face similar plights.

The officer added that prisoners feel they have nothing to lose and are not deterred by punishments, like fresh charges or being sent to solitary confinement.

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

Reports of female IDF soldiers being sexually harassed and assaulted in Israeli prisons surfaced in 2018, but were largely dropped until last year when a probe was reopened following new evidence.

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

According to a report on Monday, another IPS intelligence officer who had served at Gilboa Prison was being questioned under caution over his alleged involvement in the scandal.

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.

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

The Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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