Israel has been actively covering up a Shin Bet sex crime for years

Israel has been actively covering up a Shin Bet sex crime for years

A Palestinian woman filed a complaint after being subjected to an intimate search. Her story reveals the tip of an iceberg of Israeli misconduct, excuses, and cover-ups at the highest levels of the security and justice establishment.

by Kathryn Shihadah

In recent weeks, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz has been reporting on a disturbing case opened in 2018 by the Israeli State Prosecutor’s Office. The story reveals Israel’s official complicity with the intimate body search of at least one Palestinian woman, and Israel’s investigative agency’s unwillingness to police its own.

Israel has a long history of strip searching women and children, first revealed by If Americans Knew in 2007 (see this and this) and in number of additional reports since.

Following is a recent egregious example, and complicity at the highest levels of the Israeli security and justice establishment.

In 2015, Shin Bet and Israeli military personnel raided the home of a Palestinian woman suspected of having links with Hamas (the elected body ruling in Gaza) in order to confiscate cell phones and tablets. The woman cooperated, and the Israelis located the devices. They still needed to find a SIM card.

A high ranking Shin Bet officer (male) apparently told an Israeli military officer (also male) to order a body cavity search – an act that was not only unjustified, but may be considered rape and sodomy.

The military officer ordered the woman to be taken to a room and stripped, and two female soldiers (one a doctor) to perform the search; that is, she was searched twice. Nothing was found, and no one along the line of command questioned or reported the order (the SIM card was later found in the woman’s bedroom).

The Palestinian woman, from a traditional family and concerned for her reputation, was deeply traumatized by the incident. She filed a complaint against the Shin Bet.

A case was opened and six Israeli officials, including members of both the Shin Bet and the military (IDF), were investigated for sex crimes and other misconduct, including assault (the identities of these individuals are protected by a gag order and layers of censorship).

An investigation was quietly opened in 2017; Ha’aretz got wind of the incident and began reporting in 2018. Since then, more details have come to light.

The context

Israel has earned a reputation for lying to cover up its crimes, conducting “investigations” that whitewash its actions, disregarding international law (including the injunction against apartheid), going easy on the few Israelis whose actions can’t escape notice, and going hard on Palestinians who are innocent.

Both the Shin Bet and the Israeli military and police are known for their widespread use of torture on Palestinian prisoners (including child prisoners and Americans), as first reported by journalist Grace Halsell in the 1970s.

Over 1,000 complaints have been lodged regarding Shin Bet conduct, but until this incident, every one had been dismissed.

Under the pretext of a permanent, widespread Palestinian threat, Israel has installed checkpoints all over the Palestinian West Bank, severely restricting freedom of movement. (Pictured: Checkpoint 300 near Bethlehem)
Under the pretext of a permanent, widespread Palestinian threat, Israel has installed checkpoints all over the Palestinian West Bank, severely restricting freedom of movement. (Pictured: Checkpoint 300 near Bethlehem) (ActiveStills)

Shin Bet’s mission is to defend Israel from internal threats – and everything about Palestinians is considered a threat, so it’s a safe bet that those 1,000+ complaints (most of which involved torture) were from Palestinians.

And it’s no surprise that their grievances are routinely ignored: their human rights mean little to the Israeli machine. Israeli troops have violently interfered with such mundane Palestinian activities as funerals, demonstrations, poetry readings, craft fairs, and even bicycle-riding.

But, as Ha’aretz reported in 2021, this incident generated at least a grudging willingness to open a file:

So delicate was the case that the attorney general convened a special meeting to discuss it. “If we don’t investigate this, the International Criminal Court in The Hague will,” said one of those present.

(The International Criminal Court – ICC – steps in to prosecute cases “only when States do not are unwilling or unable to do so genuinely.” Israel is under investigation at the ICC already for 2014 crimes, and has been referred for its torture of Palestinians.)

The investigation

Ha’aretz obtained the interrogation transcripts and published excerpts after the case was closed in 2021. They are revealing.

To begin with, Shin Bet documents gathered for the case showed “unequivocally” that there was no reason to suspect the woman was concealing the SIM card on her body.

The female medic, one of the two who had performed the search, said, “That arrest was a traumatic experience from my point of view…Maybe I am so traumatized that I repressed things. It’s still hard for me to believe.” Although she apologized to the Palestinian woman during the search, she has no regrets.

One thing that is crystal clear from the transcript is that multiple layers of multiple Israeli security organizations were involved in the decision-making. Apparently, at no point did anyone question the plan – except the Palestinian woman, who insisted that the search was humiliating and inhumane.

And no one seemed to remember where the order had originated.

Notably, however, during the investigation some of the defendants admitted to the allegations.

Complicity by State Prosecutor

Admissions notwithstanding, the State Prosecutor’s Office closed the case in 2021.

Although claiming there was insufficient evidence, the State Prosecutor apparently had enough information to assert the righteousness of the act. The official legal opinion stated in part:

“it is possible that in a formal manner the foundations of the crime of rape exist…[T]his may be an unacceptable act, but it was carried out incidentally to a completely legitimate operation whose purpose was described as having security importance.

[W]hen you examine the circumstances of the improper act, its conduct was characterized by an attempt to minimize the harm to the complainant.

The manner in which the order was carried out was characterized by caution, sensitivity and consideration.

That is to say, the State Prosecutor found it acceptable to commit this violent act – twice – against a Palestinian woman because it was done with gentleness, and because Israeli “security” trumps all laws, policies, and procedures.

After the case was closed, all investigative material was handed over to the Shin Bet and IDF to continue the effort internally.

Prime Minister Netanyahu visits the Shin Bet command center, November 14, 2019.
Prime Minister Netanyahu visits the Shin Bet command center, November 14, 2019. (Shin Bet)

Complicity by Shin Bet and IDF

According to Ha’aretz, at the beginning of the whole debacle, the then-director of the Shin Bet determined that one of the agency’s top officials should be reprimanded for “substantial and moral” lapses in his handling of the situation, and that he should be fired or at least passed over for promotions for several years.

But before the plan was enacted, the director stepped down. His replacement disregarded the instructions, and the official was promoted to a “key role within the organization” – a position in the training program.

Another officer, whose testimony was at times unintelligible and at others clearly false, is also still working for Shin Bet, where “a word from him in a report can still send a person to jail.”

One high-ranking IDF officer stated during his interrogation, “I served in units in which the Shin Bet would tell me to kill people, and I would kill them.” This startling statement led the interrogators to consider opening another investigation – but ultimately they let slide this revelation about Shin Bet assassinations (a crime under international law).

The officer is still serving, as is the IDF medic who performed the exam.

The female IDF soldier who examined the Palestinian was promised a letter of recommendation to join the Shin Bet in exchange for her work.

The female Shin Bet officer in charge of following up on complaints, who had originally pushed for the investigation, was passed up for a high level post in the Justice Ministry.

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

Complicity by the state

Israel is fully capable of carrying out investigations, convictions, and punishment for sexual crimes – when the victim is Jewish.

Just last summer, news got out of a sex scandal in which several female IDF soldiers had been victimized. Israeli President Isaac Herzog rushed to make a statement:

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.

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.

Every woman in Israel must be safe; every woman acting on behalf of the state must be safe…

[It is] our obligation [to] investigate these cases in depth so that everyone responsible is held accountable with the fullest severity.

And indeed, the guilty party, an Israeli, was found and duly fired.

A Palestinian victim, however, has little chance of being heard, let alone enjoying due process.

Israel’s Supreme Court/High Court of Justice serves mostly as a rubber stamp for Israel’s crimes, rather than providing checks and balances.

Ultimately, when an Israeli leader utters the word “security,” all bets are off. An Israeli journalist with 38 years of specializing in intelligence and security affairs, with experience at all levels of courts, and with both liberal and conservative judges, described the situation:

When it came to security issues, there were no differences between them. Both groups stand at attention when they hear the word “security. Both are lackeys of the defense establishment.

They are willing to whitewash almost any injustice committed by the defense establishment, and to quickly brush aside, without a thorough discussion and while demonstrating a contemptuous and arrogant judgmental nature, any petition or request by media outlets, lawyers, human rights activists and any supporter of justice.

[I]n Israel,…the defense establishment…operates like a state within a state and does almost anything it pleases, without effective parliamentary supervision, and with close cooperation and backing from the legal system.

Reactions to the closing of the case

Soon after the State Prosecutor closed the case, the Palestinian woman appealed with help from the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. The appeal stated, in part,

In a situation in which there is no dispute that acts that constitute rape and sodomy were committed, [in which] there is sufficient evidence and when no one is punished, it’s outrageous and unbearable…

There’s no justice, no judge, and all of the people in the security system are immune from prosecution even when they commit illegal and immoral acts.

The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel also wrote a letter to the Israeli Attorney General which deserves to be quoted at length:

This [incident] involves a serious sexual assault. The fact that such a serious case was closed without filing indictments testifies to the incompetence of the police misconduct unit, the military police, and the prosecution; they should have taken criminal action against everyone involved in the assault.

No less grave is the fact that the case was closed because none of those involved took responsibility, and all the senior commanders in the incident tried to blame one another, like the worst of criminals.

If the prosecution sticks to its decision not to prosecute anyone, then at least immediately dismiss them from the public service to send a clear message: sexual assault, torture and war crimes are not acceptable to Israeli society, and commanders involved in them aren’t worthy of serving in state institutions.

Physicians for Human Rights has demanded that the Israeli Health Ministry take disciplinary action against the doctor, adding,

A search without the consent of a detainee is a violation of medical ethics and a doctor is not permitted to take part in such a procedure…

[T]he fact that [she believes] she has the authority to conduct such an examination testifies like a thousand witnesses that she is totally unaware of the contradiction between her actions and medical ethics.

The American mainstream media is, by failing to report on this incident (and Israel’s overall incompetence in providing justice for the Palestinians under its control) is complicit in oppression.

The US government is at least equally at fault for its refusal to hold Israel accountable.

Americans need to speak out about these and other Israeli atrocities – otherwise, $10 million a day of our tax dollars make us complicit too.






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