Report: Prosecutors found cavity search of W. Bank woman was part of ‘legitimate op’

Documents show top justice officials castigated officers’ actions during 2015 arrest, but did not believe they rose to the level of sex crimes

Illustrative: Palestinian women at a checkpoint in the West Bank city of Bethlehem June 10, 2016. (Wisam hashlamoun/FLASH90/File)
Illustrative: Palestinian women at a checkpoint in the West Bank city of Bethlehem June 10, 2016. (Wisam hashlamoun/FLASH90/File)

Israel’s State Attorney’s office ruled that security forces’ invasive search of a Palestinian woman’s private parts in 2015 should not be seen “through the prism of sex crimes” because it was carried out as part of a “legitimate operation,” documents reveal.

Haaretz this week published the contents of the 2018 opinion by prosecutors, which appear to shed light on the decision not to press charges against any of the military and Shin Bet officers involved.

“Though [the search] was wrong, it was carried out incidentally to an entirely legitimate operation whose purpose was described as having security importance,” according to the opinion.

The Palestinian woman was arrested for suspicion of ties to the terrorist group Hamas during a raid on her home in 2015. Officers in charge of the operation ordered an extraordinary search of the woman’s genitalia and anus. They attributed their decision to a suspicion that the detainee had hidden inside one of her cavities a telephone SIM card which she allegedly used to communicate with Hamas operatives. They had no intelligence to indicate she had done so, and the search found nothing. The SIM card was eventually found hidden in her room.

Six Israeli officers — three apiece from the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security agency — were investigated for sex crimes and abuse of power in the wake of the cavity search, which was performed, over the detainee’s objections, by a female IDF staff clerk and a female IDF medical doctor.

The doctor later testified that she would have objected to the order had it been given in a non-military context, which the State Attorney’s Office took as evidence of the dubious nature of the search. Still, the case was closed last year for “lack of evidence.”

The 2018 legal opinion showed prosecutors believed none of the officers’ misconduct rose to the level of criminal activity. However, the opinion, which was primarily written by State Prosecutor Hila Adelman, deemed several individuals worthy of blame.

At the top of the chain of command overseeing the operation stood an IDF brigadier general and a Senior Regional Coordinator for the Shin Bet with the pseudonym Yossi.

Adelman suggested that disciplinary measures be taken against Yossi and that he be prevented from serving in “sensitive roles” within the Shin Bet because of his “abuse of power.”

Yossi was never disciplined by the Shin Bet. He was, in fact, promoted within the security service under current chief Ronen Bar. When Bar was still serving as the Shin Bet’s second-in-command, Yossi held a senior position in his office.

Bar denied any involvement in blocking disciplinary action against Yossi, whose punishment was recommended not only by Adelman but also by former Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman.

As for the brigadier general, Adelman noted that the IDF carries out operations on the basis of intelligence provided by the Shin Bet, citing testimony from the top officer who stated: “I served in units in which, when the Shin Bet told me to kill people, I killed them.” She nonetheless recommended that disciplinary action be taken against him as well.

Finally, Adelman took issue with “Avi,” a second Shin Bet officer who handled the organization’s internal review. She accused him of “lying” over the course of that investigation. Adelman argued that the liberties Avi took with the truth “constituted a fundamental offense to the professionalism of the organization and the public’s trust in it,” and therefore called for his punishment. Avi still works at the Shin Bet.

In Hebrew, an illegal or immoral order is often referred to as “an order over which a black flag flies.” Adelman concluded her opinion by writing, “Even if the flag flying over this illegal order is not a black one, it is dark gray and up near the top of the flagpole.”

Adelman appeared to stop short of judging that the search order and its implementation demanded criminal proceedings due to three main mitigating factors: the vital security interest in locating the SIM card, the “cautious, sensitive, and discrete” manner in which the order was carried out, and the inapplicability of Israeli search and seizure laws in the Palestinian territories.

In response to the leaked opinion, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, which represented the Palestinian woman, declared that the legal opinion “is in itself an act that has a black flag flying over it. It inflicts a mortal wound on the rule of law, the justice system, and basic decency most of all.

“It constitutes an absolute distortion of the instruments of the criminal and civilian courts, all with the purpose of protecting the criminals in this case and extricating them from judgment.”

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