‘Today everyone will know that I was a victim and I spoke the truth.”
The sense of relief in the closing sentence of the statement released by an anonymous victim of the “pimping affair” in Gilboa Prison cannot be missed.
In 2018, a report published by Walla reporter Liran Levi revealed allegations that female prison guards were being “given” to security prisoners in Gilboa Prison to fulfill those prisoners’ sexual desires.
In the initial report in June 2018, “Yael” (not her real name) claimed she had been repeatedly touched and harassed by security prisoners and that the complaints she filed to her commanding officers in the Israel Prisons Service (IPS) went unheeded. According to Yael’s testimony, she was moved from her regular position to serve in the wing that housed security prisoners, where she came into contact with Fatah terrorist Muhammad Atallah, to whom she alleged female prison guards would be sent in exchange for intelligence information.
Shortly after being placed in the wing with Atallah, Yael attempted to file a sexual assault complaint to the senior officers but she said that not only did they already know about the incident, they had played a part in orchestrating it. Moreover, she discovered, she wasn’t the only victim caught in the same situation.
“I was a security guard [at Gilboa Prison] and I hated working there,” read Yael’s testimony shared with Levi back in 2018. “I would tell them that the men constantly harassed and harassed me. Now, he [Atallah] would always walk by me [and it was] as if he was touching me, but by mistake. Now, the first time I said, ‘Okay, something like this can happen by mistake.’ But a second time and a third time and a fourth time? What is going on? What is happening? And when I would go and report him, they would say, ‘Don’t pay him any attention, he’s just stupid, he’s all over the place.’”
Yael’s testimony and her external complaint filed with a police investigatory department led to a case being opened against Atallah, who is serving life in prison for murder, and the prison’s intelligence officer, Rani Basha, on suspicion that he intentionally provided Atallah with female soldiers in exchange for intelligence information. However, whereas an indictment was filed against Atallah for sexual assault, the case against Basha was closed due to lack of evidence in October 2019.
Now, over two years later, an admission made by current prison warden Freddy Ben-Sheetrit has led to calls for the case to be reopened, both from the public and the political sphere.
During an inquiry last month into the escape of six prisoners from Gilboa in September, Ben-Sheetrit directly referenced the “prison pimping affair,” as it has come to be known, stating under oath that “female guards were provided to terrorists for sexual purposes.”
Within hours, news articles from 2018 resurfaced, politicians and activists began to call for answers, and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev recommended to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to investigate Ben-Sheetrit’s statements.
His reasoning for this, Bar-Lev explained to the Magazine, was that “due to the committee members’ announcement that the testimony made by Ben-Sheetrit would not be examined by them, [I] believed that there was room to recommend to A-G Mandelblit to re-examine the information that emerged in the original investigation case.”
During the original investigation, Basha was suspended from service and underwent an internal IPS investigation. Despite the findings concluding that “the totality of [his] actions and behavior, listed above, indicate that, ostensibly, [he is] no longer suitable to serve in the IPS,” Basha continues to serve in the force until this day.
Yael, however, was not so fortunate. Following her testimony and the scrutiny it put the Prisons Service under, she was put on unpaid leave for an unspecified amount of time, with no support from the IPS. Following months of uncertainty, and dealing with the fallout of her experiences, she decided to resign, leaving her with no income and no form of employment.
FOLLOWING THE events of the last week, many have found themselves wondering – why was Yael ignored three years ago, and what does it take to make people listen to the victims of sexual assault?
“Normalization and minimization,” explains Orit Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel (ARCCI), answering why Yael was ignored for so long.
“It seems the system knew about [the pimping affair] and normalized it, saying that this is just the way it is.”
In this case, normalization refers to a process that makes sexual assault in these environments seem more normal or regular, allowing behaviors that would usually be regarded with suspicion to become commonplace. The second factor, minimization, means to reduce the issue to less than its true value, which is prominent when it comes to the dismissal of sexual assault.
“Every woman experiences sexual harassment in her life, and many times society considers it to be small or trivial, but it isn’t small or trivial. Every case causes damage, to a woman’s body, to her soul,” says Sulitzeanu.
And with the renewed attention on the case comes the inevitable renewed trivialization of the alleged events.
The issue of normalization and minimization was on full display on Monday morning, as IPS Intelligence Division Head Regev Daharug relayed his opinions on the pimping incident, during his testimony regarding the six escapees from Gilboa.
Rather than focusing on the disturbing allegations, he chose instead to comment on the semantics and wondered aloud about the accuracy of the word “pimping” to describe the episode.
“The terminology [of pimping] is wrong and shocking. It [pimping] is the altogether disgusting use of someone for the benefit of something. If something like this happened it would be extremely unusual, and I do not think that something like this happened.
“The guards are exposed to sexual harassment, physical assault, it’s part of the work process unfortunately,” he said later on, adding that “anyone who commits such acts is punished.”
Feminist advocates note that Daharug’s statement disregards the severity of the events, reducing them to something smaller than what had been described in both the victim’s testimony and Ben-Sheetrit’s statement.
The apparent laissez-faire attitude to sexual assault inside the prison could easily be described as normalization – sexual assault is routine, they say. Even if those responsible are punished, it should be reprehensible to those who work to protect a country and keep it safe.
In his comment, Daharug plainly stated that men are held accountable and punished should they assault or harass the female guards. Yet when looking at the facts in the case, and examining the price paid by Basha and others suspected of involvement in the incident, compared to the price paid by the victims, it is easy to doubt these assurances.
Speaking about the other victims of Atallah’s assaults, Yael said the girls had “stopped eating and suffered from anxiety attacks” as a result of the repeated trauma. She herself lost her income and her stable job, and endured being “treated like a liar.”
In comparison, Atallah, a man who was already serving life in prison, was simply moved to another location, and the IPS officers suspected of involvement were never indicted.
The 2019 case against Basha was closed for lack of evidence, despite not everyone agreeing that it should have been. According to Walla’s Levi, the police recommended that the prosecution file an indictment on an evidentiary basis. Despite this, Deputy State Prosecutor for Criminal Matters Shlomo Lemberger closed the case, citing a lack of evidence.
“Did moving [Basha] punish him? No, he didn’t pay a price,” says Sulitzeanu. “He didn’t lose his salary or get demoted. Nobody paid a price for this. The only people to pay a price are the guards.”
Additionally, even though the officer was removed from his position in the prison and placed in a new location, that alone does not solve the problem. More than one person was involved in the incident, and not one of them had faced significant consequences, she said.
And it had seemed certain it would remain this way, had it not been for Ben-Sheetrit’s testimony last month.
WHILE SOME, including Prisons Service Commissioner Katy Perry, have accused Ben-Sheetrit of using the pimping affair as a way of deflecting and diverting attention from his role in the prison break, Sulitzeanu was less concerned.
“I don’t care why Ben-Sheetrit said what he did, I care that it was said... and what about the entire system around Ben-Sheetrit? All those people who knew and did nothing?” she said, highlighting the system as the root of the problem rather than just one person, in one prison, doing one thing.
“One of the big problems in Israel, but not just in Israel, is that men in power abuse their positions, and part of that is the abuse of women who are younger than them,” Sulitzeanu explains when asked about how the pimping affair fits into a wider picture of violence against women in society.
“In Israel it is men who hold the highest positions of power; doctors, politicians, police, those with power are traditionally men, there are significantly more men than women. These systems are very, very male-dominated and men allow themselves to use the power they have because of their positions in order to abuse women.”
One doesn’t have to look too far back to see these power dynamics at play both in the prison system and in society at large.
Last month, a prison guard in the North was indicted on charges of rape, false imprisonment, threats, extortion, trespassing, harassment and domestic violence. In February, police officer Amir Raz shot and killed his wife, Diana, in front of their four children before phoning his commanding officer and confessing to the murder. Despite his confession, his legal team insists he did not intend to kill her, and that he is not responsible for his actions.
Outside of the legal and law enforcement systems, the picture is no less severe.
In October, a 49-year-old psychiatric nurse was arrested on suspicion of murdering 17-year-old Lital Yael Melnik, who he first met when she was hospitalized in his ward, and burying her body in a construction site. The courts are currently fighting over whether he can be released to house arrest, after the Haifa Magistrate’s Court decision, citing a lack of evidence, was temporarily overridden by the Haifa District Court. However, he has openly admitted to having a relationship with her, which started while she was hospitalized at his place of work.
Also in October, the director of gastroenterology and pediatric nutrition at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Prof. Arie Levine, was arrested for sexually assaulting patients under the guise of medical treatment. At the time, an anonymous police source was quoted as saying that “a pattern arose of a man, a senior doctor, abusing his power and experience to sexually assault women.”
THESE EXAMPLES point to a systemic issue of men in power wielding their control over women less powerful than them. It is an issue much larger than just the prison system; meanwhile, just 3% of sexual offense cases ended in legal action in 2020.
The pimping affair’s reentry into the spotlight has caused some to question the way young women are treated upon their entry into mandatory service, and the extent to which the problem is systematic can be better understood by examining another large body to which thousands of young women are drafted every year: The IDF.
Speaking to the Magazine, an IDF spokesperson explained the systems in place which work to prevent sexual assault, and, when the need occurs, deal with the aftermath of sexual offense incidents.
“During training, and every six months afterward, all IDF service members go through training on the prevention and treatment of sexual harassment, and as part of this, the channels of contact and the way to report incidents are made known to them,” he stated, when asked if soldiers are properly equipped with the knowledge of how to keep themselves safe, should such an incident occur.
“Additionally, each unit has a permanent representative from the Gender Affairs Adviser to the Chief of Staff (Yohalam), who is available and accessible for all soldiers in the unit on the issue of sexual assault.”
Asked what support, if any, victims of sexual assault in the IDF can receive, the IDF spokesperson stressed that all necessary services are made available to the victim.
“In every report of sexual harassment received in the IDF, the victim is offered all the legal equipment provided by Mahut [the treatment center for IDF service members who have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence], legal advice, therapy and personal support in pursuing the various options.”
However, statistics prove that despite education methods and prevention techniques being established within the IDF, sexual assault remains a pervasive problem within the system.
A recent report shared by the ARCCI showed an increase of 105% in the amount of sexual offense complaints received between 2015 and 2020.
Two-hundred and eighty nine IDF soldiers reported incidents of rape or attempted rape in 2020, and 705 reported cases of sexual assault incidents other than rape. Of these reports, 68% took place in a military setting.
Incidentally, although IPS soldiers in their mandatory service are also sent to Mahut in the event of sexual assault, the victims of the alleged pimping affair were not, and the incident was dealt with exclusively within the IPS.
An IPS spokesperson did not respond to the Magazine’s request for comment by press time.
Therefore, the renewed interest the pimping case has received over the last few days is all the more unusual.
“Something happened today that does not happen to just any victim of sexual offenses,” wrote Galia Shmilovich Grengard, the lawyer representing Yael, following Ben-Sheetrit’s testimony.
“This confession is in fact a confirmation of all the claims of the guards: this is a confirmation that the guards were an object for IPS officials. Confirmation that they were used for the sexual whims of terrorists.
“Confirmation that this is a policy method, a pattern of action, a work plan pursued by a body entrusted with law enforcement in Israel. And confirmation that this program was not stopped by any factor in the system, and that all parties cooperated with it, from the most senior to the most junior.”
This attitude of seeing women as a means to an end featured prominently in the pimping affair. Upon the closing of the case in October 2019, Basha’s lawyer stated that “by virtue of his position, he [Basha] had the responsibility of thwarting and exposing criminal and security incidents,” and that the exact method by which this was done could not be disclosed.
“As part of the activities to prevent dangerous operations from occurring, classified intelligence operations are constantly being carried out, which have more than once led to the thwarting of terrorist attacks and unusual incidents in and out of prison... since this is intelligence work, I cannot disclose the methods of action, or address the substance of the allegations.”
Shortly after his representative’s statement, the case against Basha was closed for lack of evidence.
On November 29, amid renewed conversations about the pimping case, Maariv reported that Basha had quietly been promoted and started in his new role as head of the detention center at the Magistrate’s Court in Petah Tikva.
Adv. Keren Barak, a representative for the prison guards, called the promotion “a spit in the face of my clients,” and said that “no promotion or position received by a senior official, however, would cause us to stop insisting that the prosecution reopen the investigation file against him and reconsider its decision to close it without filing an indictment.”
If some had been cautiously optimistic enough to believe that the case garnering attention again was a positive sign that something had changed, the promotion of Basha might cause them to stop and think twice.
“The abuse of women in the army, in hospitals, in the police, this isn’t changing,” said Sulitzeanu. “Never mind the #MeToo movement or feminism, there is still a long way to go.
“I am disappointed in the Prisons Service and they owe the public answers,” she continued. “If I was a mother and my daughter was conscripted to work there, I wouldn’t want her to go. How have they improved the conditions? How was the system improved?... It’s very worrying.”
Former IPS commissioner Orit Adato, meanwhile, declined the Magazine’s request to comment on systemic sexual assault and the placing of female guards in these situations.
Since Ben-Sheetrit’s testimony, he has not been summoned to the police again to expand on his statement. Reporter Levi said, “They appear to be waiting for the public storm to pass and until the issue is removed from the agenda. They continue to silence it. What a disgrace.”
Those waiting for the public to lose interest may find themselves waiting a while, however, as more and more women here realize that the only way to find justice for themselves is through public uproar.
Sulitzeanu affirmed, “It is important to shout, to make noise, only then will things change.
“Men should begin to be afraid of the consequences of women reporting them, or of the ‘shaming.’ They should begin to be afraid of the public price.
“Public noise is the most important thing. It is the only thing that makes a difference.”