Lapid: We will investigate, we will get to the truth

‘Shock and pain’: Herzog urges ‘in-depth’ investigation into Gilboa Prison scandal

President says all those responsible must be ‘held accountable with the fullest severity’; Lapid tours a prison security ward after vowing to investigate sexual abuse scandal

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

President Isaac Herzog addresses the Gilboa Prison scandal at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, August 2, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog addresses the Gilboa Prison scandal at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, August 2, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

President Isaac Herzog on Tuesday expressed “shock and pain” and urged an “in-depth” investigation into the accusations that female soldiers were “pimped out” to be raped and sexually abused by security prisoners at Gilboa Prison.

“Hearing the testimonies of the female prison guards in recent days, I am filled with shock and pain, and I feel sick. I think that’s the feeling in the general public,” Herzog said.

Last week, a former IDF soldier identified under the pseudonym Hila said she was repeatedly raped and sexually abused by a Palestinian security prisoner while she served in Gilboa Prison, with the full knowledge of her commander.

According to Hila, the prisoner “controlled all the officers and staff, who listened to him and carried out his ‘commands’ without debate.”

“How have we reached this horrific situation, in which the women who keep us safe — their bodies are forfeit?!” Herzog exclaimed.

“We must remember that the wounds and scars these female soldiers have suffered will never disappear. They will remain etched on the bodies, minds, and souls of the victims,” he said.

“Every woman in Israel must be safe; every woman acting on behalf of the state must be safe,” the president declared, adding that it was “our obligation” to “investigate these cases in depth so that everyone responsible is held accountable with the fullest severity.”

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

Earlier on Tuesday, Prime Minister Yair Lapid toured Ofer Prison, a facility for security detainees in the West Bank, with the purpose of studying the prison’s security wards and the ways prison guards interact with prisoners.

He met with 25 conscripted soldiers serving in prisons across the country and listened to their concerns regarding the scandal, according to a statement issued by Lapid’s office.

“We will investigate, we will get to the truth,” Lapid said during the visit. “The State of Israel won’t stand by amid concerns that a prison guard in her mandatory service in Israel was raped or sexually harassed by terrorists.”

He stressed, however, the importance of the IPS. “We must protect this organization because the safety of every Israeli citizen depends on its strength and integrity,” Lapid said.

According to his office, Lapid’s visit to Ofer Prison marked the first time an Israeli prime minister had visited an IPS facility in an official capacity since Shimon Peres did so in 1985.

On Sunday, Lapid vowed to address the scourge of violence against women, which he called “a stain on the country” and said that the victims of the Gilboa Prison scandal would receive assistance from the state.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid meets with soldiers in their mandatory service who are serving as prison guards while visiting the Ofer Prison amid the Gilboa Prison scandal, August 2, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Addressing the controversy on Monday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said he had ordered the reevaluation of a years-long agreement allowing conscripts to be drafted to the Israel Prisons Service (IPS).

Gantz issued a letter to Public Security Minister Omer Barlev — who oversees the IPS — demanding conscripted soldiers not be allowed in the same prison wings as Palestinian terror convicts until the rape allegations are investigated.

Keren Barak, an attorney who represents several women who have served at Gilboa Prison over the past decade and claim to have been “pimped” to security guards on several occasions, has said the victims were still struggling to live a normal life.

The former soldier identified as Hila “lives in poverty due to her mental state, which does not allow her to join the job market,” Barak told Channel 12 last week.

Barlev himself called the IPS a “rotten organization,” adding that “no one cared about what was going on there.”

“A big part of what we’ve been doing this past year is carrying out steps meant to shed light on the organization,” he said in an interview with Army Radio. “There’s still a long way to go before this organization can function properly.”

Reports of female IDF soldiers 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 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 next 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.

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

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.

According to a Channel 12 report Monday evening, the Shin Bet has been aware of Atallah’s assault of female guards in the prison for months but failed to investigate the issue further.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report. 

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