Israel’s prison ‘pimping’ scandal: an explainer

Several young women who worked as guards at Gilboa Prison in recent years told Hebrew-language media that they had been subject to sexual abuse and harassment during their time in service.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

Allegations that female prison guards were “pimped out” to Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons — in exchange for intelligence data and compliance from prisoners — has roiled Israel’s corrections and security systems.

Reports originally emerged in 2018 that vulnerable young women, who were performing their mandatory military service as prison guards, were intentionally left alone with inmates convicted of terror offenses. The prisoners were essentially permitted to grope and harass them as senior officers at the prison turned a blind eye.

But a probe into the abuse of women guards went nowhere until a senior official reignited interest into the allegations when he was questioned regarding a different prison system scandal.

What’s the connection to the Gilboa Prison escape?

In September 2021, six prominent Palestinian terrorists escaped from Gilboa Prison in a highly-publicized security failure which proved supremely embarrassing for Israel’s security apparatuses.

An investigation into the escape revealed that everyone from low-level guards to higher officials had failed in their duties. Those meant to be keeping an eye on the inmates were watching TV and sleeping during shifts.

But when Gilboa Prison’s warden, Freddy Ben-Sheetreet, was asked to explain the numerous failures on the part of his staff while testifying about the escape in front of a Knesset committee in November 2021, he swiftly directed attention to the sexual abuse scandal.

He argued that he was being made a “scapegoat” for a prison with a checkered history of mismanagement, and dropped a bombshell statement that the “pimping” of female guards at the institution were initially ignored and later covered up.

Ben-Sheetreet offered no information that had not already been covered in the initial media reports about the scandal. Furthermore, he was not present at Gilboa Prison during the time when the abuses are believed to have taken place.

Terrorists calling the shots

Several young women who worked as guards at Gilboa Prison in recent years told Hebrew-language media that they had been subject to sexual abuse and harassment during their time in service.

Five women said that that they were ordered to work in close quarters with various terrorists, including Fatah member Mohammed Atallah, who then groped them, brushed against their bodies, and made crude comments.

The women said that the incidents occurred with the full knowledge of their commanders, whom they said placed them in such situations with the knowledge that abuse would occur.

The supervisors reportedly allowed the female guards to be harassed and abused in exchange for intelligence or cooperation from the prisoners.

“I was a security guard [at Gilboa Prison] and I hated working there,” one victim told Walla News in 2018.. “I would tell [my supervisors] that the men constantly harassed me. [Atallah] would always walk by me [and it was] as if he was touching me, but by mistake.

“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.’”

Initially, the allegations were that the women had been groped over their clothes, but an additional victim came forward last week and said she was repeatedly raped by Atallah.  Using the alias Hila, she said that her commanders “handed her over” to the terrorist.

Atallah “controlled all the officers and staff, who listened to him and carried out his ‘commands’ without debate,” she wrote on a fundraising site meant to help her mount a legal campaign against Israel’s prison services.

Notably, in January 2022, Atallah admitted to investigators at the prison that he had sex with a female prison guard, though he maintained that the encounter had been consensual.

Atallah was placed in solitary confinement in 2018 due to complaints from female prison guards about sexual abuse and harassment, so the revelation that he was permitted to be alone with a woman as recently as this year marks a flagrant violation of the security restrictions that are meant to apply to him.

The fall-out

IPS Intelligence Division head Regev Daharug strenuously disputed Ben-Sheetreet’s categorization of the incidents as “pimping,” saying the term was inaccurate to describe what he says was an unfortunate reality of working in a prison.

“The guards are exposed to sexual harassment, physical assault, it’s part of the work process, unfortunately,” he said. “Anyone who commits such acts is punished.” The use of the term “pimping” is inaccurate, “wrong,” and “shocking,” Daharug said.

In an interview with Channel 12 News on Tuesday, retired northern district prison commander Makbil Tafesh, who was responsible for Gilboa Prison during his time in service, flatly denied the allegations.

“According to my assessment, it didn’t happen,” Tafesh said. “I don’t know what the motive [for the women coming forward] is, who perhaps took advantage of these girls for the sake of money or there was… someone resentful, frustrated, [or] hurt by some decision.

“It’s a sensitive issue, so everyone sympathizes,” he added . “Let them investigate and turn over every stone… But in my assessment, there was never a prison guard pimp.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid pledged a full investigation into the allegations as he toured Ofer Prison in Samaria on Tuesday morning.

“We will investigate, we will get to the truth,” he said. “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.”

President Isaac Herzog said that he was sickened by the allegations.

“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,” he said, adding that it was the government’s “obligation” to “investigate these cases in depth so that everyone responsible is held accountable with the fullest severity.”