Youths Still Fighting for Recognition of Sexual Abuse in Israeli Settlement Bloc

One accused abuser is in jail awaiting trial, but people who say they were sexually abused in Gush Katif before the 2005 disengagement blame community leaders for covering up the incidents.

A resident of Nitzan (illustrative)
Ilan Assayag

This story can also be told from the end, starting with the leadership of Gush Katif at the time when children were being abused sexually. Those who knew, papered over the cracks and remained silent. Some of them still hold public positions in the communities of the evacuees.

Gush Katif was a bloc of Israeli settlements in the southern Gaza Strip. Their residents were removed from their homes and resettled in Israel in 2005, when the government of Ariel Sharon withdrew from the Strip.

Lior Kalfa, chairman of Neve Dekalim settlement until the 2005 withdrawal and currently secretary of Nitzan, a community that took in many of the former residents of Neve Dekalim. refused to answer questions on the phone. Instead, he sent a link to a Facebook post by his colleague Nissim Haviv, a resident of Nitzan and former member of the Hof Gaza regional council.

"Mistakes were made," Haviv wrote, "but the community did not evade anything, the leadership did not paper over the cracks and the community acted using the tools available – carefully and responsibly."

"That unfortunate incident was not silenced," wrote Gal Kirschenzaft, previously a member of the Neve Dekalim secretariat, on the Facebook page of Racheli Greenberg, who complained about another abuser.

He said that one of the Neve Dekalim rabbis "dealt with it personally and after speaking with the victim he came to the conclusion that she was unfortunately correct and her attacker was a criminal.

Matanya Eliakim
Ilan Assayag

"The rabbi didn't give up. The patient was sent for professional treatment and other steps were taken. I don't know what was decided with the police, but the incident wasn't covered up."

Nitzan council chairman Nati Zarviv, who wasn't part of the Neve Dekalim leadership at the time, told Haaretz this week: "We are focusing more on the future and less on the past. We established a large team of professionals to assess whether we still have other victims and perpetrators among us.

"We are unaware of anything new and all the old cases are being dealt with by the authorities."

Ygal Kamintzy, formerly the rabbi of Neve Dekalim and part of the community's leadership, who has been living in Nitzan since the disengagement, told Haaretz: "Today, I am a private person and I'm not interested in responding."

But what began more than a decade ago when children from the area began reporting sexual attacks, has not ended as far as the victims are concerned and certainly doesn't belong to the past. Today, they're exposing and accusing the community's leadership of knowing, covering up and enabling the criminals to continue their abuse. One of the responses this week was an internal email calling for the exposure to end.

The stories reappeared about two weeks ago when a youth committed suicide by gunfire in his parent's home in Nitzan. We will never know what drove him to do it. But what we do know is that the name of the youth, we'll call him G., appears on the indictment submitted last June to the Be'er Sheva District Court as one of the five alleged victims of former Neve Dekalim resident Shlomi Cohen.

G., a smiling, friendly youth, is described in the indictment as having undergone aggravated sexual abuse for years, along with the other four.

The cemetery in Nitzan (illustrative)
Ilan Assayag

Now, other youths who grew up in the community are coming forward one-by-one, using their full names and breaking the silence, as they put it. Their testimonies could lead to additional charges against Cohen and possibly other abusers from other communities.

The repercussions are being felt in every place where Gush Katif evacuees are now living. Fingers are being pointed primarily at community leaders – teachers and rabbis, some of whom still hold public positions and live in the communities of the evacuees.

Cracks are beginning to show in a community that is going through its most tumultuous period since 2005.

The leadership of Neve Dekalim knew of at least two men who were committing sexual abuse. It dealt with some of the cases, but those that were reported to the police didn't go anywhere – with the exception of one incident which made it to court but ended in acquittal.

"The Gush Katif police were the closest thing to the sheriff in a western," said Matanya Eliakim, 27, who was born in Neve Dekalim and it one of the leaders of the current activity. "There's no way of knowing how they did things."

He and his wife Eliya, who grew up on moshav Gan Or in Gush Katif, are fighting for the truth to be revealed. With the assistance of Tair, a center for victims of sexual assault, they are attempting to find other victims and other perpetrators and to get the truth out of the Gush leadership.

Eliakim says that he and his colleagues are under pressure to end their activities. A message to that effect came in an internal email sent last week by the Nitzan residents' committee as well in personal messages that he has received.

"You are trampling on us ... you have irresponsibly exposed things," wrote Doron Gilboa, who was youth coordinator on Neve Dekalim and volunteered to assist the victims.

Shlomi Cohen, son of one of the veteran Neve Dekalim families, was described as being popular among the youth. He was the community's security coordinator and a tutor for the Perach educational project – the amusing bachelor whose caravan was open to all.

In Neve Dekalim they heard that he was "doing things" with boys and girls, but a demand that he be distanced was met with disbelief. Avidav Goldstein wrote on Facebook that he had been abused by Cohen from the third grade and complained to the police, along with others, in ninth grade. The file was closed after several months due to lack of evidence.

"Shlomi continued to walk around the place like a peacock, free, untroubled, embraced by all and with an air of triumph," Goldstein wrote.

"At the same time, I was a leper, with comments flung at me from all directions, glances and whispers everywhere. Close friends abandoned me and kept in touch with him.

"The leadership and rabbis of the community had their hands up in surrender because 'the file was closed and there's nothing we can do about it.'"

Two women, one of them Avidav's mother, fought to have Cohen expelled from Neve Dekalim, but without success. He was only displaced as security officer and as youth coach during the final basketball season in the Gush.

After the evacuation, the secretariat rejected efforts by members of the community to prevent Cohen from purchasing a plot of land in Nitzan, though he never lived there.

Nevertheless, Cohen is suspected of continuing to attack boys and girls long after the evacuation. He became a sports teacher in a religious community in central Israel, where he was again accused of assaulting a minor.

According to Goldstein, Cohen received a certificate of good conduct from the local police and his file was changed from "lack of evidence" to "lack of guilt." The question is why the police went to such lengths for him.

A police spokesman said that the police provide Cohen with clearance to work with minors in terms of the law. "After such a length of time, with changes in documentation processes and the fact that the police station that issued the permit closed many years ago, it is impossible to relate to the content of the complaints and the way the file was dealt with," the spokesman said.

The prosecutor's office declined to respond on the grounds that the case was under a gag order.

Cohen's arrest on a later and unrelated assault gave the youth from Gush Katif confidence to file police complaints. He has been detained until trial and is facing two serious indictments: One for sexual assault on a youth in Petach Tikva and the second for sexual assault on five boys and girls in Be'er Sheva.

This week, another case came to light concerning a former resident of Neve Dekalim who presented himself as having rabbinical qualifications. He was a man with standing in the community, who assaulted girls. Complaints were laid against him as well and his story, too, was known to the leadership. And it, too, came to nothing.

Racheli Greenberg, 22, wrote on Facebook that she was one of his victims. She told Haaretz that, after her father laid a complaint with the police, "we were joined by several other girls who said he had assaulted them as well. But no other parents agreed to join the complaint. They were scared. My parents were ostracized. They were pressured to withdraw the complaint."

The man was tried and acquitted. Today he holds a public position in one of the evacuee communities.

From his home in Be'er Ganim, near Nitzan, Eliakim said that what was coming out now was probably bottled up anger by the youth at the impotence of their parents and the rabbis who demanded that they stand with the community during the evacuation and today.

"We are not looking for revenge," he said. "But today, as opposed to the time of the expulsion, we are no longer willing to keep our mouths shut. He wife, Eliya, remarks that Gush Katif was a distant and closed place. But the rules have now changed," she said.

The attorneys representing Shlomi Cohen responded: "We send our condolences to the family of G. and stress that there is no connection between the decision of that youth and the case that we are handling. Shlomi Cohen continues to maintain his innocence. There are things that we can't reveal right now in order to maintain the dignity of those involved."