Jerusalem - A few weeks ago, Rachel Iscove, a 27-year-old lawyer in Tel Aviv, joined the other female workers in her office and approached her employer with what normally would be an unacceptable request.
“We asked our boss if we could leave early every day so we could get home before sunset,” said Iscove, a recent immigrant from Canada.
The request was granted promptly. Benny Sela, Israel’s most infamous serial rapist, had escaped. Sentenced in 1999 to 35 years in prison for the rape of 14 women, he had slipped away from two police officers outside a Tel Aviv courthouse in late November, putting women around the country in panic.
The police deployed massive forces to catch him, fearing he would hurt someone before being snared. He was captured on December 8. Sela admitted after his capture that he had considered attacking some women he saw during his 15 days on the run. “But I stopped myself,” he told Yediot Aharonot.
A committee investigating his escape called the affair “a significant failure” on the part of the police. For the public at large, it appears to be just another in a growing string of scandals involving the police force, the military and the government itself.
While Iscove and countless other women feared being raped, parents increasingly worried about the safety of their children in school, and residents of both north and south feared rockets landing on their homes.
Three days after Sela’s capture, the country was stunned when 14-year-old Tair Rada was found on the floor of her Golan Heights middle school, brutally stabbed to death. The police say they are positive that the killer is a 29-year-old Russian immigrant who admitted — and later denied — the charges. But the girl’s parents said late last month that they are not convinced that the immigrant is guilty — illustrating, if nothing else, the widespread lack of trust in Israel’s police.
Doubt in government institutions and leaders is virtually the norm in Israel today. A recent poll in Yediot showed how most Israelis feel that the country lacks leadership. A welter of committees and commissions is currently busy investigating blunders of those in power on issues ranging from the handling of prisoners to running a war. But many doubt that much will come of this.
“Often in Israel, it’s not the people on top who take responsibility,” said Fred Lazin, professor of public policy at Ben-Gurion University.
Israel’s military chief of staff, Dan Halutz, may be one who has no choice but to take responsibility. So far, Halutz — like the prime minister and defense minister — has dismissed calls to resign for his handling of last summer’s bungled war in Lebanon. Nevertheless, he is expected to resign next month after the Winograd Commission, submits its report reflecting its study of the war.
By contrast, Israel’s president, Moshe Katsav, accused of raping or harassing several female subordinates, is refusing to quit unless he’s convicted. He’s not alone. A number of other ranking elected officials are under investigation or suspicion for various alleged misdeeds.
The one official who has voluntarily stepped down after facing charges, former justice minister Haim Ramon, is now in the midst of a new public furor. Ramon is currently on trial on charges of harassment — in the form of an uninvited French kiss — of a female soldier who had sought a photo opportunity with him. This week, three of Ramon’s female office aides stepped forward to question the soldier’s story, saying she had openly discussed being infatuated with the divorced Ramon and had called him a “hunk.”
Ramon’s trial yielded another bombshell this week, after his attorneys asked to examine a key piece of evidence against him: a taped conversation between the alleged victim and Shula Zaken, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s personal secretary. Police, after initial denials, admitted the tapes existed. They handed over partial transcripts but would not say why Zaken’s phone had been bugged. Last Monday night, Channel 10 Television reported that the wiretap was placed not because of the Ramon case but because Zaken was herself under investigation for allegedly handing out to associates plum jobs in the tax authority in return for tax breaks for her own relatives. She was placed under house arrest this week.
Attempts are being made to restore popular faith in government. Last month the Knesset’s constitution, law and justice committee approved a bill that would require — for the first time — the suspension of a sitting lawmaker convicted of a serious crime. The bill still faces hurdles before becoming law.
But of all the scandals, it is the Benny Sela case that has most captured the popular imagination. Police, in their defense, say that Sela’s escape was exceptional. “The fact that one prisoner has escaped does not reflect on the Israeli police force and how it functions,” police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.
Not according to Sela. In his interview-by-correspondence with Yediot, published December 22, 2006, Sela wrote that he had many opportunities to escape before, but had not taken them in order to demonstrate that he was wrongfully classified as a “high flight risk” prisoner.
What Sela did not tell Yediot was how he escaped from his police escorts, where he hid and who helped him. It also remains unclear why he was taken to court on a Friday when court is closed Fridays, and how he managed to scale a high fence handcuffed and without being noticed, as the police claim.
Fears for personal security have increased in Israel in recent years. Every weekend, Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv receives between two and five stabbed youths, said Dr. Pini Halperin, emergency room head. “Most of it is from fights at places where [kids] hang out,” he said, adding, “The rise has increased dramatically in the last five years.”
The murder of Tair Rada exposed a plague of violence and drugs inside her school in the Golan town of Katzrin, bringing youth violence back to the headlines. Fearful parents are now demanding that the schools add more security guards.
Ilana Tzairi, 40, said she’s taking her own precautions. “I send my children to judo classes,” said the Tel Aviv mother of a teenage daughter and two younger sons. “I want them to know how to defend themselves.”
Social and economic problems are often cited as leading causes of violence. “When you have a child who is hungry or whose parents are fighting or whose father is unemployed or on drugs, why would you be surprised that the child would become violent?” asked Elizabeth Levy, director of the Israel National Council for the Child.
Levy’s council received some 10,000 calls last year from children and youth who felt that their rights were infringed upon.
Many experts blame government policies. While Thatcherite economics, introduced by former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are widely seen as having enriched the wealthy, they have made many poor people worse off. “The gap is greater than ever,” Lazin said. “Israel probably has the poorest Jewish community in the world. It’s becoming like a second-class country.”
Although poverty has increased, government social and welfare services have not. “Look at the enormous number of organizations which are taking care of the welfare of people in Israel and feeding them,” Levy said. “It’s incredible. The government is not taking on its responsibilities. There isn’t even a minister of welfare anymore” — the post is vacant, due to political maneuvering — “and the social services are collapsing for lack of funding. Social workers have hundreds and thousands of cases. They are not doing preventive care, they’re putting out fires.”
Sela’s own family story is one of the tragedies. He grew up in a poor section of Tel Aviv. When he was 13, his alcoholic father committed suicide by jumping off a building. Sela was later put in a kibbutz foster home.
In 1995, some 10 years later, Sela was arrested for the first time for systematically molesting a cousin over a seven-year period. He was sentenced to two years in prison, but released after six months for good behavior despite a psychologist’s evaluation that he was a danger to the public.
A year before his imprisonment, and for years after his release, a wave of rapes and sexual assaults hit Tel Aviv. Women and girls were attacked in their apartments. Some were tied with telephone cords; one woman was raped as her two daughters slept near her.
Oddly, the sadistic fugitive has managed to win a measure of popular sympathy, thanks to media exposure and another police misstep. In interviews, he emotionally described his two weeks on the run as a “war for survival” and claimed that he hurt no women.
“There wasn’t any food, no place to sleep,” he told Channel 10 from Rimonim Prison. “I saw police officers looking for me, and I followed the media closely… I could have raped, but already in prison I came to terms with myself, and I am sorry for what I did.”
Sela also told interviewers that he fled because he was being abused by inmates and prison guards.
But what brought the most criticism were photographs of Sela being beaten and humiliated by officers as he was taken to the Nahariya police station after being caught. A parade of lawyers, lawmakers and citizens protested the officers’ behavior.
One former victim openly decried the media circus, urging the public to remember who are the “real victims” and not overplay the photo incident. “I am sitting at home and going out of my mind, asking how this crazy and cruel man suddenly became worthy of compassion,” a poster called “A.” told the Ynet news Web site.