Israel Slams Police for Failing to Enforce New Laws Against Polygamy

The number of polygamy investigations dropped by 54 percent from 2017 to 2018 ■ Police: not enough information collected for a database

Lawyer Jamal Hamoud, left, with Amin Abu Sakik, convicted of polygamy, outside of the Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court, February 28, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Justice Ministry criticized the Israel Police, saying they are neglecting the issue of polygamy and not implementing the stronger enforcement policy that was adopted two years ago.

Senior ministry officials issued guidelines to the authorities in an effort to eliminate the phenomenon, which occurs primarily in Bedouin society, but police data show that they are not adhering to most of them. To date the police have not assigned personnel to deal specifically with the issue, no information has been collected that would aid the authorities in addressing the problem and the number of investigations in 2018 actually dropped by more than half.

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Polygamy has been a crime in Israel since 1977, but for years there was no enforcement so as not to undermine the social norms of the Bedouin. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, approximately 6,200 Israeli men are married to more than one woman. In 2015 Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked launched an initiative to eradicate polygamy and in 2017 Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ordered enhanced enforcement and stiffer punishments, including imprisonment. The guidelines do not apply to men who were married to more than one woman before the new rules were issued.

Last year the government adopted the recommendations of an inter-ministerial committee, led by Justice Ministry director-general Emi Palmor and which called for police to handle the enforcement, but also called on agencies like the National Insurance Institute and the Sharia courts to provide information on suspected polygamy.

From statistics provided by the police in response to a freedom of information request by the Lavi organization, it turns out that the number of investigations launched in 2018 dropped 54 percent compared to 2017, from 406 cases to 188. Despite the Palmor Committee recommendations, no police personnel were assigned to handle the crime, and in any case the relevant police officials had only asked for one officer and one field detective. The organization said, “The statistics prove the police are neglecting their job and are not acting as they should to halt polygamy in the Bedouin sector.”

The Palmor report noted that it was necessary to collect data on polygamy, because its extent and consequences are not known to the state. The report itself relied on all kinds of estimates and approximations, and called on the state to make the collected data available to all enforcement agencies and other state agencies.

But according to the police response, not enough information has been collected to develop a database that the state could use in its effort to reduce the incidence of polygamy, and certainly none of the required classifications had been made, like in how many cases the marriages were to Palestinian women, in how many cases was the NII allegedly deceived, where the suspects live and what the investigations were based on. During recent follow-up meetings chaired by Palmor, she reportedly criticized the police on the way the report’s recommendations were being implemented.

“It’s clear that the police are not as involved in the matter as we are,” even though they play a crucial role in limiting the phenomenon, a senior Justice Ministry source said. According to the source, police demanded that the Palmor recommendations remove a section that instructs them to collect information about polygamy from the Palestinian press, in which there are periodic announcements about pending polygamous marriages in which one of the spouses is Israeli.

The alleged reason was that the police didn’t want any outside interference in the way they collect intelligence. Instead, they insisted on a more general guideline that calls for “enforcement through all the tools at the police’s disposal.” The source said that during the most recent follow-up meeting, the police representative refused to answer a question on whether ads in the Palestinian press were being monitored.

The Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court also criticized the handling of polygamy cases by the police and the prosecution in the one case in which a man was convicted. Judge Ron Sulkin wrote that indictments in polygamy cases lack details that could affect the punishment to be imposed. In many cases there is no conclusive evidence regarding the date of the defendant’s second wedding, which creates difficulties for the prosecution.

The police said in response, “The Israel Police carries out many actions to deal with polygamy, and dozens of cases are opened every year. The policy is based on the dictates of the attorney general. Following his order, starting in 2017 there was a significant rise in the reporting from those who deal with this issue and as a result there was a rise of hundreds of percentage points in the number of indictments filed last year, a fact that attests to greater enforcement, investigation and handling than in the past.

“Most of the investigations are initiated without a complaint by the victim, which indicates that resources are being invested in the matter. But the ability to deal in depth with a social phenomenon when most of its victims are unwilling to complain is limited. Every instance brought to the police’s attention is investigated thoroughly, after which the files are transferred for evaluation and a decision by the prosecution.”