updated 5/1/2006 3:43:20 PM ET 2006-05-01T19:43:20

It’s being described as the worst sexual abuse scandal in the army’s history. At least 17 Israeli soldiers are under investigation in the statutory rape of an 11-year-old girl who lived with her family on an air force base in southern Israel.

Defense lawyers say the girl lied to the soldiers about her age, claiming she was older, and the sex was consensual.

The case marks a new low for the military, once Israel’s most revered institution but tarnished in recent years by financial corruption and sexual misconduct.

According to limited details released by the military Monday, at least 17 Israeli air force soldiers have been investigated and several others are likely to be called in.

The girl lived with her family on the base where her father, a career military man, served.

The family has since left the base and the girl is under psychological care, the army said.

According to media reports, the girl, now 14, told military investigators the sex was consensual and she had lied to the soldiers about her age. Some soldiers involved told investigators the girl claimed to be 16, and they had no idea she had yet to reach her 12th birthday.

One of the suspects told the Maariv daily the girl initiated the sexual encounters. The army has been investigating the case since March and charges are expected to be filed soon against the soldiers. The army has issued a gag order on all other details related to the case.

The affair has rocked the military, and the commander of the air force said it violated all the norms and ethics of the Israeli army.

Conspiracy of silence’ alleged
Despite expressions of shock from senior officers, retired Col. Gadi Amir raised doubts.

“This kind of phenomenon couldn’t have happened without many other people knowing about it, including officers,” he told Israel Radio. “I believe there was a conspiracy of silence in this case.”

Amir, a psychologist and a former head of the army’s behavior sciences department, said the scandal marked a low point in military conduct.

“This is well beyond a criminal offense. It is rape and it is a breach of norms and ethical codes that, without them, our army cannot continue to exist,” he said.

Court cases against senior army officers charged with sexual harassment and assault have been on the upswing in recent years. Experts say it reflects a gradual shift in Israeli society toward women asserting their rights and refusing to accept behavior that used to be considered routine.

In the most famous case, former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, a career military officer, was convicted in 2001 in two cases of sexual assault. He continues to contest the charges.

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