Despite Probe, Shin Bet Officers Suspected of Ordering Invasive Search of Palestinian Woman Remain in Duty

The Civil Service Commission was not informed of the investigation against the two Shin Bet officers, who are suspected of ordering female soldiers to conduct a vaginal search of a woman during her arrest

FILE Photo: Two women at the Qalandiya checkpoint in the West Bank, 2018.
ABBAS MOMANI / AFP

Two officers from the Shin Bet security service who were investigated last year on the suspicion that they ordered two female Israeli soldiers to conduct an invasive search of a Palestinian woman's private parts after her arrest without any operational reason have not been suspended from their jobs.

In addition, the Civil Service Commission was not informed that an investigation had been opened in the case.

The Palestinian woman's complaint, which Haaretz has obtained, states that one of the Shin Bet officers is an area coordinator and the other is an investigator. Both were only identified by the initial "A."

The search was conducted after the woman was arrested in 2015 on suspicion of actively abetting terrorist activity. Despite the more serious suspicions against her, she was ultimately convicted of less serious crimes and sentenced to two years in prison, after which she was released.

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The investigation of the Shin Bet officers has been completed and the file has been transferred to State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, who will decide whether to file indictments.

It is possible that Nitzan will decide that instead the two will face agency disciplinary proceedings within the Shin Bet, while the criminal case against them would be closed.

Two weeks ago, Haaretz reported new details about the investigation, which was initiated by Jana Mudzgurishvilly, who was then head of the Justice Ministry department that investigates misconduct complaints against the Shin Bet. Mudzgurishvilly left the position at the end of September after serving for five years as head of the department.

This is the first criminal investigation conducted by the unit, known by its Hebrew acronym Mivtan, into allegations of violations of suspects’ rights during a Shin Bet interrogation, even though hundreds of complaints have been filed since the department was established.

According to the Palestinian woman's complaint, her arrest by the Israeli army took place at her West Bank home at around 1 A.M. and she had been sleeping at the time. The soldiers who arrested her were from a unit of combat engineers, but the two female soldiers accompanying them were not combat soldiers, a source with knowledge of the details of the investigation said. The Palestinian claimed that the force consisted of two female soldiers, five male soldiers and two “captains” — a term commonly used by Palestinians for Shin Bet officers.

The woman alleged that the two began questioning her and issued threats, including a threat that they would demolish her home. After a search of her house, the two female soldiers asked her to undress, she said. According to the complaint, one of the women soldiers asked her to consent to “an internal search in the nature of a gynecological examination.” The Palestinian woman said she objected but one of the women soldiers told her that this was an order and if she refused, they could force her to undergo it.

One of the female soldiers put on gloves and carried out a vaginal and anal search, which yielded nothing, the complaint alleges. But after the first soldier finished her examination, the Palestinian woman said she was surprised that a second female soldier repeated the search, and the pair said these were the orders that they received.

The searches were conducted without the Shin Bet officers being present, the woman said. Sources with knowledge of how the Shin Bet operates said it is likely that the order to conduct the intrusive search was not given by the investigator, but rather by the area coordinator, who in practice commands the operations along with the army officers.

After the search was completed and the female soldiers informed her that they had found nothing, she was allowed to dress and was taken to a military jeep, the Palestinian woman recounted. From there she was taken for questioning to a Shin Bet facility at the Shikma prison in Ashkelon.

In her complaint, the woman alleged that she was subject to harsh questioning there by a number of investigators who identified themselves only by nicknames, in questioning that lasted for most of the day. They allegedly cursed at her and threatening that if she did not tell them everything she knew, she would remain in solitary confinement.

Because the woman was suspected of abetting terrorism, she was prevented from meeting with a lawyer for two weeks. “This was a gross violation of the total ban on torture, brutality, inhumane or humiliating treatment,” a source close to the woman alleged. “The search conducted on her constitutes a sex crime and physical violence and as a result of it, she felt helpless and threatened.”

She filed a complaint about the search after her arrest, but no investigation was opened at the time.

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Head of unit urges filing of a complaint

In 2017, Mudzgurishvilly, the head of Mivtan, heard about the incident and tried to meet with the Palestinian woman and convince her to file a detailed complaint, but the woman refused.

A few months later, when the Palestinian was again arrested on suspicions of security offenses, Mudzgurishvilly convinced her to file another complaint, which led to a criminal investigation after Nitzan ordered that one be conducted by a special Justice Ministry team.

In addition to the two suspected Shin Bet officers, a third Shin Bet officer, who was the commander of the two, was apparently questioned “under caution," meaning that he was considered a criminal suspect.

None of those involved in the incident has been suspended from their jobs and no administrative proceedings have been instituted against them. The two female soldiers who conducted the invasive searches provided testimony to the investigative team but were not questioned as criminal suspects.

"On the face of it, the Shin Bet personnel and security forces committed a serious criminal offense," Efrat Bergman-Sapir of the Public Committee against Torture in Israel said. "A vaginal search can only be carried out with the detainee's consent, following the approval of a physician and at an appropriate location."

The Palestinian woman was released from prison while her complaint was under investigation. She left Israel on a foreign passport and is now living abroad. She has not returned to the West Bank since, and it is thought unlikely that she will return to testify. No replacement has been named to succeed Mudzgurishvilly as head of Mivtan.

Even though the investigation has been completed, sources close to the Palestinian woman said they were not optimistic about the prospects that criminal charges would be filed in the case. “We have no hopes for the Israeli legal system,” one of them said.

If Nitzan seeks to have the Shin Bet officers' case handled in internal disciplinary proceedings, the law authorizes the head of the Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, to order the proceedings before a three-person panel. Such proceedings are usually held in cases of alleged disciplinary infractions connected to operational Shin Bet activities. The decision to convene the disciplinary panel would also require the approval of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and would be held instead of filing of criminal charges.

Disciplinary proceedings are usually conducted behind closed doors at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court. The panel would be head by a judge and would be joined by a representative appointed by the Shin Bet and another by the Mossad intelligence service.

Asked for a response for this article, the Shin Bet said: “The matter is being handled by the State Prosecutor’s Office so we cannot comment at this stage.” The State Prosecutor’s Office did not respond on the matter.