Sexual Assault Cases in Israel's Defense Establishment Up 15% in 2014

IDF praised for confronting sex harassment; police, prison service are criticized.

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An archive photo of Israeli soldiers.
An archive photo of Israeli soldiers. Credit: Emil Salman

The number of sexual assaults in the defense establishment rose 15% in 2014, with a record number of complaints. However, the rise is being interpreted as a sign that female Israel Defense Forces soldiers are now more aware of their rights. The police and prison service, by contrast, have been criticized for their handling of the issue.

Israel’s security forces have long been seen as hothouses for sexual harassment. In recent years, though, the Israel Defense Forces at least has invested efforts to eliminate the phenomenon. However, recent figures – obtained by TheMarker through the Movement for Freedom of Information – show the number of sexual-assault complaints in the defense establishment on the rise. They numbered 777 in 2012 (511 in the army itself, and another 266 among civilian employees) and 930 in 2013 (with 561 in the army), but reached a record 1,073 last year, when they averaged almost three complaints a day. Of these, 667 were in the army and 406 among civilian employees.

The increase is not necessarily all bad news, as it seemingly indicates that soldiers are less embarrassed to file complaints. In the Israel Police and Israel Prison Service, however, the annual number of complaints is surprisingly low – only six in the IPS and seven in the police force last year (from partial figures provided by the police, which do not include Justice Ministry data regarding criminal files).

In all these organizations, the number of those fired or resigning after being connected with harassing an employee is very small – four each in the police force and the IDF in 2014, and only one in the IPS – and that was a soldier doing compulsory service who was reassigned to the army.

The IDF response to the Movement for Freedom of Information’s petition to receive data on sexual harassment was far more detailed than those from the police and prison service.

“The increase in the number of reports in the army also means that the cup is half full. It doesn’t mean that there’s an increase in incidents, but that women’s awareness of their rights is greater,” said Yehudit Grisaro, a brigadier general in the reserves and a former adviser on women’s affairs to the chief of staff.

“It’s important to understand that the most sophisticated and effective way to combat the problem of sexual harassment is awareness. Even if it isn’t evident in the figures, the army is handling sexual harassment very well. Other organizations would do well to adopt what the army has done over the past two decades,” added Grisaro, who today is vice president for customer service at El Al Airlines.

‘A culture of honest reporting’

In light of the increasing reports of sexual harassment in the IDF, the number of indictments remains small. Only 23 indictments for harassment, rape or indecent acts were filed in 2011. The number grew to 26 in 2012, but fell to 17 in 2013 (the figures for 2014 are not yet available).

Although the numbers seem very small, not every report of sexual harassment even reaches the stage of a formal complaint. Yet even after a complaint was filed, only 21 career soldiers were fired or resigned in each of the past three years as a result.

The IDF explained that the figures on the number of those leaving the army related to those serving as career soldiers who faced a disciplinary committee who chose to discharge him or her. “We are unable to quantify the number of incidents in which a career soldier chose to be discharged on his own initiative, in light of an investigation or a legal proceeding that had not yet reached the stage of an indictment,” the IDF said.

MK Michal Rosin (Meretz), who has served as the executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, focused her criticism on the other two security arms – the police and Prison Service. “The number of complaints of sexual harassment in the police and prison service is a joke,” she said. “The increase in reports of sexual harassment in the army is encouraging, because it attests to a system that is willing to listen, that acts to raise awareness and eliminate the phenomenon.”

How do you explain the difference in the number of complaints?

“The system in the police force and the prison service is that the moment there’s a complaint about sexual harassment, it is not investigated by the organization itself but is transferred to the Police Investigations Unit in the Justice Ministry,” said Rosin. “On the face of it, that’s great: They allow an independent body to investigate the complaints. But in fact, that reduces the number of complaints dramatically.”

Rosin said the Law for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment addressed precisely this issue when it determined that government bodies must appoint someone in charge of handling sexual harassment complaints. This enables women to actually file a complaint more freely, because not every report automatically becomes a formal criminal complaint or the opening of a file. Sometimes, the only thing a victim wants is for the harassment to stop. When a complaint quickly become a formal legal process, women are hesitant to begin it.

“The law makes an exception for the security forces, but whereas the police and Prison Service simply didn’t see themselves as responsible and have transferred everything to the Police Investigations Unit, in the army ... they have done very serious work with the guidance and advice of the Tel Aviv Sexual Assault Crisis Center, after which the army established its Center of Coping and Support (Mahut) – a center to help victims of sexual assault. This is really a far-reaching development.

“Still, it’s important to say that, in the army, too, the number of complaints understates the extent of the problem of harassment. I would be very happy to see a dramatic increase in complaints in the coming year, because that would attest to increased action and to an improvement in the system,” added Rosin.

The IDF told the Movement for Freedom of Information that it had been making great efforts to eliminate sexual assaults, noting that since it established Mahut three years ago, there had been an increase in awareness and more complaints filed.

In response to the movement’s petition, the police wrote that between 2011 and 2014, 36 files were given to the Police Investigations Unit. That amounts to just three files in 2012, 18 in 2013 and seven in 2014. But only two to four indictments for sexual harassment were made in each of those years. Meanwhile, the number of police officers dismissed after being investigated for harassment has been declining.

MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) said the fact that there were fewer complaints in the police or Prison Service than in the army didn’t meant there was less sexual harassment in those two groups. The small number of complaints in the police force was due to the fact that there was insufficient attention paid, and the female officers don’t receive legitimization and support from the system.

The police, however, replied that in recent years, the issue of sexual harassment has begun to receive higher priority in terms of prevention, information and enforcement. The police established Yohalan, a women’s advisory unit, with female officers involved in training police officers and giving lectures in all Israel Police units on the subject.

IPS: 9,000 workers, only six complaints

In the Prison Service, meanwhile, some 20% of its 9,000 employees are women (1,775). But there were only four complaints about harassment filed in 2012, and six in each of the following two years. An even smaller number led to indictments, and some of the files were closed.

The Prison Service explained that sexual harassment is now not just a criminal offense but also a disciplinary offense. Complaints are transferred to the disciplinary unit and the Police Investigations Unit. At the conclusion of the criminal probe carried out by the police, the file is then transferred to the State Prosecutor’s Office, which determines whether it will be handled as a criminal or disciplinary case.

“The handling of sexual harassment is done both through prevention and education, and is characterized by severe measures taken against violators,” it said.

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