The founder of one of Israel’s most prominent rescue organisations has been accused of sexually assaulting women and children over a period of decades.
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav set up Zaka in 1989, and was recently awarded the Israel Prize – the country’s highest civilian honour.
The allegations were first reported by Haaretz newspaper on Thursday, leading police to launch an investigation.
Mr Meshi-Zahav has forfeited his Israel Prize and stepped down as head of Zaka.
In a letter to Zaka members and volunteers, he said he was giving up the prize “out of deep concern for this holy organisation that I have built with my own two hands”. He also called the allegations “baseless”, Haaretz reported on Friday.
The allegations against Mr Meshi-Zahav date back to the 1980s.
Haaretz spoke to six people who say he assaulted them when they were young children, teenagers, and in their 20s.
According to local media he was investigated by police over sexual assault allegations in 2011, but the case was later closed for lack of evidence.
The statute of limitations has run out on five of the six cases described in the paper, meaning police are unable to investigate them. However, they have now launched an investigation into the sixth case, in which a woman says she was raped by Mr Meshi-Zahav when she was in her 20s.
Zaka is a network of volunteer-based community emergency response teams in Israel. It developed following Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli buses, and its mainly ultra-Orthodox members were often first on the scene to help casualties and recover victims’ remains.
In a statement, the organisation said it wanted to “keep the names and reputations of the thousands of Zaka volunteers away from this incident, and to clarify that they have nothing to do with it”.
It added that its management was “shocked” by the allegations, and that they had trust in the official investigation.