Law enforcement officials said the police did not investigate information it had about the sexual assault allegations against Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, founder of the Zaka rescue organization, for a very long time.
The investigation was closed for lack of evidence, and this week – following the investigative report published by Haaretz on sexual assault allegations involving Meshi-Zahav starting back in the 1980s – the case was reopened.
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The officials said the central investigations unit of the Jerusalem District police did not advance an examination of the intelligence information received at the beginning of the 2010s on alleged sex crimes by Meshi-Zahav and only in 2013 did the national fraud squad – a unit that rarely deals with sex crimes – open an investigation.
The sources, who were involved in the investigation of Meshi-Zahav a decade ago, told Haaretz that the Jerusalem police investigations unit had information on alleged sex crimes he committed against female minors, but this information was never examined until the fraud squad requested. Senior police officers who served in the Jerusalem District at the time said the information the investigations unit had was “only superficial.” A legal official involved in managing the case said the Jerusalem police attributed the difficulties in the investigation to what they called “a lack of cooperation” on the part of the ultra-Orthodox community, and rejected accusations against them that they had treated Meshi-Zahav leniently because of his position.
At first, the national fraud squad’s investigation involved suspicions of Meshi-Zahav embezzling money from Zaka, and then additional suspicions of sexual assault of female minors. Two of his brothers were questioned under caution as criminal suspects and were wiretapped, but the information obtained did not show evidence of crimes by Meshi-Zahav, “not even (enough) for an arrest,” a former senior police official said. The fraud squad, which is part of the police’s elite Lahav 433 unit, rarely handles sex crime cases – and the police’s senior command felt that it should not be involved in this case either.
A breakthrough followed meetings by the fraud squad with well-known Haredi figures, who provided the names of about 10 girls who Meshi-Zahav was providing with financial support. Another case involved a woman code-named Z., who met with investigators and described how she was allegedly assaulted in 2011, but refused to file an official complaint. She currently lives abroad and investigators are trying to find her to get her to testify.
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Z. told Haaretz that Meshi-Zahav attacked her after she asked him for help, and then threatened her: “If you say anything to anyone, a Zaka jeep will run you over.”
“He forcibly undressed me,” the woman later said of the encounter, adding that she begged Meshi-Zahav to stop. Instead, he pinned her to a couch and forced himself on her, she said. She told Channel 13 television news that she had tried to take her own life because of his actions, saying “penetration by force is murder of the soul in every way.”
The other minors whose names were mentioned in the investigation refused to provide information, or said the relations were consensual. The police suspected that Meshi-Zahav and people close to him had intimidated the girls and pressured them not to cooperate with the police.
When asked about the accusations, Meshi-Zahav told the police that all the relations were consensual. “Girls chase after me because I’m famous,” he said at the time. “But I never raped anyone. I don’t even know her,” he said about Z.
The case was closed in February 2014, and the 15-year period of the statute of limitations in this case began then.
The investigation published in Haaretz provided evidence of assault and sexual exploitation by Meshi-Zahav going back to the 1980s. Six accusers told Haaretz that Meshi-Zahav took advantage of his status, power, money and even the organization he heads to assault teenagers and younger children, both boys and girls, without regard to the ages, gender or marital status of his victims, Haaretz’s investigation found. Three other victims told their stories to Channel 13. According to the investigation, many around Meshi-Zahav reportedly knew about his actions, but did not tell anyone or report him to the police.
The statute of limitations has run out on most of the cases reported so far.
Meshi-Zahav went on Monday at his own initiative to the offices of Lahav 433 to provide his side of the story – and was subsequently turned away by an officer who told him his version of events could not be heard at this time because he has not yet been summoned for questioning – but he is almost certainly expected to be summoned at a later time.
Meshi-Zahav has denied all allegations brought against him in a lengthy response to Haaretz’s request for comment ahead of publication of the investigation on Thursday. “Publication of this article is an attempt to settle accounts with me and, regrettably, to destroy me as well,” he said.
After the report was published in Haaretz, Meshi-Zahav declined the Israel Prize he had been nominated to be awarded on Independence Day. He also suspended himself from his position in Zaka.
Aaron Rabinowitz contributed to this report.