How a Facebook Post Triggered New Complaints of Sexual Harassment in the IDF

The actions of a female soldier who this week publicly identified herself as the victim of harassment highlights a problem the army still struggles to handle.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
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IDF figures show that 1,073 soldiers filed sexual harassment complaints in 2014.
IDF figures show that 1,073 soldiers filed sexual harassment complaints in 2014.Credit: Sharona Gonen
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

Since Israel Defense Forces soldier May Fatal identified herself on Facebook earlier this week as the woman who was sexually harassed by her brigade commander, male and female soldiers have been posting their own experiences of being harassed.

Fatal filed a sexual harassment complaint several months ago against the commander of the Givati Brigade’s Tzabar Battalion, Lt. Col. Liran Hajbi, who was subsequently removed from his post and resigned from the IDF. About a month ago Hajbi reached a plea bargain with the military prosecutor, under which he confessed to five instances of inappropriate behavior in return for avoiding sexual offense charges.

Furious at the plea bargain, which she saw as humiliating, offensive and completely ignoring “the facts and the evidence,” Fatal decided to tell her story on Facebook.

Others soon followed suit. Dafi Shagal wrote about an incident about 10 years ago, when she was a young officer. On an exercise as part of a training course at the Dead Sea, a lieutenant colonel started touching her. “I froze, but managed to tell him I didn’t want to,” Shagal wrote on Facebook. “From that night I remember mainly a sense of betrayal I trusted him. I never thought of telling anyone. He has a wife, children, a career For the rest of my service I avoided passing his office, switched shifts [so as not to see him]. I didn’t think for a second it would evoke such public resonance,” she wrote.

“Years have passed,” she added. “It didn’t leave a trauma, but it was a very unpleasant situation. I have been through other unpleasant situations – just like every woman has.”

IDF figures show that 1,073 soldiers of both sexes filed sexual harassment complaints in 2014. About two thirds of the incidents – 667 – took place on a military base and involved the complainant’s commander or colleagues.

“Basically, the fact that you’re a woman is always there and you have to protect yourself. For example, at some point I stopped my evening walk in the base because of the comments, shouts and whistles. We were four women and 700 men, so you always remember you’re a woman,” says B., a soldier who completed her army service six years ago and asked to remain anonymous.

One day in training camp, she came to the dining room after a shower. “The squadron commander, in front of all the soldiers, shouted ‘Wow, someone has taken a shower – what a smell!’ And the whole dining room looked at me,” she recalls.

Another time, a major giving a briefing kept complimenting her and saying how beautiful and charming she was. “He was wearing a skullcap, surrounded by pictures of his family and children, and I was very nave,” she says now. “One day he saw me crying and invited me to his room that evening. I thought he was being fatherly.

“Afterward, when I told my [female] officer about this, she told me to be very careful because he had tried to do things to his secretary. Suddenly, I got it. When you see them with ranks and positions and they’re married, they look like people who are supposed to take care of us, the women soldiers,” she adds.

Lack of trust in the system

Despite the steady rise in the number of reports of sexual assaults over the years, many women soldiers avoid filing a complaint with the Military Police. More than 60 percent of those who sought help from the IDF’s support center for victims of sexual harassment chose not to submit a formal complaint.

Orit Sulitzeanu, the executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel (ARCCI), said that if people had “already dared ask for help, yet wouldn’t complain to the Military Police, it shows they don’t trust the system. Many soldiers believe the army takes much more care in protecting its officers than the physical and emotional safety of the male and female soldiers who fall victim to sexual harassment or assault, and don’t dare to complain about it.”

Although the IDF gives talks about sexual harassment, Sulitzeanu says it is not enough. “Ultimately, what counts is the moment of truth – when something happens – and how the army punishes and how it protects,” she says.

A female soldier told Haaretz that, while she was in training camp, a medic she served with asked her to sit with him alone in a room and then showed her a pornographic movie. Although she asked him to turn it off, he started masturbating beside her.

“I was in shock. I started trembling and left the room. I didn’t think of complaining; I was afraid. I was new at the job and decided to keep it to myself, to pretend I didn’t realize what was going on in there,” she recalls.

It was only a few months later, when she told her partner about the incident, that he persuaded her to complain. The Military Police investigation took several hours and she was asked about every detail – from the color of the bedclothes to what the medic was wearing. Afterward, she continued serving with the medic until it was decided to transfer her – not him – to another base.

“I moved to a new place and had to adjust to everything, say goodbye to my friends and overcome my trauma, while he remained in place as the inquiry continued,” she says.

“The army did not give me an answer or peace of mind. Every woman must shout out and not be afraid, because it’s not her fault. The redress comes from below – from every person who complains and shouts about what happened to her – and it’s [going to be] a matter of generations until these things don’t recur,” she believes.

Another soldier said she never spoke of the issue to friends who weren’t from the army. “What’s to complain about? That’s the attitude in the base and you don’t have anyone to complain against specifically. I didn’t see it as [sexual harassment] as such, but as the soldiers’ reality. I understood that if I’m one girl with a lot of men, that’s how they were going to talk to me,” she explains.

Lili Ben-Ami, who heads Mitpakdot – the Lobby for Gender Equality, says only a few girls have feminist awareness. “The majority are part of the stereotype of ‘Go with the flow’ or ‘He’s only flattering you.’ Most women, and men, lack awareness and what we see in Facebook, when it comes up, does not reflect most of society,” says Ben-Ami.

During her army service, Ben-Ami spoke to a soldier who had been sexually assaulted during a combat training camp in the south. The soldier said she had fallen asleep next to one of the squadron sergeants and he started touching her chest, until she woke up. “She said she froze, didn’t know how to react. In my time [in the army], nobody spoke about these things, so women couldn’t put into words what happened to them and didn’t know whom they could talk to about it,” she notes.

Ben-Ami believes the militaristic atmosphere – from female code names for conquest sites, through the military hierarchy based on obeying orders – has created the current situation. “It’s an extremely masculine arena – just look at the top brass, which consists entirely of men. As soon as 50 percent of the top brass are women, I’m sure things will be different,” she says. “In today’s atmosphere, you, as a woman, are the ‘other,’ and that affects both men’s attitude to women and women’s conduct.

“We need a different atmosphere in which women are not seen as sexual objects,” she continues, adding, “Today they are seen as such, both inside the army and outside it.”

Col. Rachel Tevet-Wiesel, women’s issues adviser to the IDF, says that while the displays of male chauvinism in the army are undeniable, they are much less frequent in mixed units. “At the end [the women] prove themselves – if they’re good fighters or pilots – and the barriers are removed. They begin to work together and that’s it,” she says.

Tevet-Wiesel also sees Fatal’s protest as a positive development. “The more complaints are made and the more posts appear, the more men and women say openly, ‘What happened to me is not right,’ the better. It’s a healthy process,” she says.

“I understand that they’re doing it from deep pain, but it’s a process that sheds light [on the problem],” she adds.

“More women are aware today that they were sexually assaulted; that it’s wrong to speak to them in a certain way, that it’s wrong for the commander to kiss them on the cheek – and sexual offenses on the officers’ part are declining. I feel it’s permeating through, but not enough,” she concludes.

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