JERUSALEM — An Israeli teenager has said that she was gang-raped during a visit to the resort city of Eilat, and one of the accused has said that as many as 30 men joined in the attack, shocking the nation as police officers began rounding up suspects.
Two 27-year-old men from northern Israel were in custody by midday Thursday, police said, and a special investigation team was gathering surveillance images, cellphone data and other evidence to try to identify other potential suspects.
Israel has been through repeated rounds of soul-searching over cases of sexual assault in recent years, but the Aug. 12 attack, news of which broke late Wednesday, quickly overtook the national conversation.
The sheer number of men involved, attributed to a lawyer for one of the two suspects arrested, ignited a storm of outrage.
One of Thursday’s noon news broadcasts opened by playing a somber Israeli pop song about group sexual assault, “The Whole Gang,” but with adapted lyrics to reflect the Eilat victim’s account.
On Twitter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the attack was “not only a crime against the girl, this is a crime against humanity itself that is worthy of all condemnation and those responsible must be brought to justice.”
Aida Touma-Suleiman, a lawmaker and longtime advocate against violence against women, called the reports chilling. “The evil is inconceivable,” she said.
And Benny Gantz, the defense minister, wrote in a series of Twitter posts that he had been “trying, and failing, to understand: What is a man who is standing on a crowded line with dozens of others, on the way to a room where a young, disoriented girl is lying down, trying to prove?”
Addressing the unnamed 16-year-old complainant, Gantz added, “My heart is with you, you are not alone.”
Orit Sulitzeanu, director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, said the number of attackers was horrifying but beside the point. “It’s a bigger issue,” she said. “Gang rape is just a manifestation of something very bad going on here,” calling it part of a “rotten culture.”
The association’s hotlines have been receiving an average of 250 calls from victims of gang rape each year since they started keeping count in 2014, 55% of them from teenagers.
In 2018, the group received 192 such calls, its records show. But police reported only 19 complaints of gang rape that year, 12 of them from minors.
Sulitzeanu said that many victims decline to file police reports out of shame and stigma but that a greater deterrent was the slim chance of an attacker being brought to justice: Nine out of 10 rapists go unpunished, and 84% of rape cases are closed without being prosecuted.
Overcrowded courts have forced prosecutors to pursue only the most surefire criminal charges, she said. “They want to be positive they’ll win, or they close the file.”
In one recent case, an 11-year-old girl said she was raped by several older boys last year, and the attack was captured on video, but prosecutors recently closed the case after failing to determine who had made the video.
Sexual assault cases are on the rise in Israel in general, according to Sulitzeanu’s group, with the number of complaints to police climbing 15% from 2013 to 2018 and the number of calls to the group’s hotlines up 40% in the period.
Sulitzeanu said she believed that Israeli students were not being properly taught about consent. “It’s not compulsory; it depends on the teacher and the school principal,” she said. “They don’t do it because these kinds of subjects aren’t easy; they’re embarrassing.”
On Thursday, the education minister, Yoav Galant, said he had ordered that sexual-violence prevention programs be made mandatory in schools in the coming year.
“We will take action so that every boy and girl in Israel has a deep understanding of the boundaries of what is permissible and what is forbidden,” he said, according to Ynet.
After the Aug. 12 attack, a police spokeswoman, Nava Dihi, cautioned that investigators had not yet established the number of attackers and that it was possible that some people present had not taken part. Still, just being present could be a crime, she stressed.
The 16-year-old came forward to police in Ashqelon on Friday saying she had been attacked two days earlier at the Red Sea Hotel, Dihi said. The girl was on a three-day visit to Eilat, at the southern tip of the country, with several other girls her age.
The group stayed in a private villa, then went to the hotel to meet up with other friends, where they spent time drinking in a guest room to the point that the girl became intoxicated, according to Haaretz.
“But even if she drank, that doesn’t give them the permission — no matter what her condition was,” Dihi said.
Israeli news organizations reported that one of the arrested men had offered to help the girl but instead led her into another guest room where the attack took place. Some of the men filmed the assault on their cellphones, Haaretz reported.
Dihi said she could not confirm those accounts. Late Thursday, police said responsibility for the investigation was being shifted to a special task force.
A public defender for one of the arrested men, who did not respond to repeated messages, told Israeli news outlets that her client denied having sex with the girl but insisted she had invited the men into the room, that she and her friends saw no reason to call for help, and that she had only gone to police after learning she had been filmed.
The two suspects arrested had traveled to Eilat together from the city of Hadera and were staying at the Red Sea Hotel, police said, though a manager at the hotel told Israel news outlets that the attack had taken place elsewhere.
Last year a dozen Israeli teenagers were arrested in Cyprus after a 19-year-old British woman said they had raped her in a resort hotel there. But after an outpouring of concerns about victim shaming and the pressures in Israeli society to prove one’s manliness, the Israeli teens all wound up freed, and the woman was arrested on charges of making a false accusation.
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