Israel’s rescue chief steps down over sexual assault claims

JERUSALEM — The head of Israel’s renowned ZAKA rescue service stepped down from his post on Friday and relinquished a prestigious national prize amid sexual assault allegations dating back to the 1980s.

Israeli media said police opened an investigation.

In a statement, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, 61, denied the allegations detailed by the Haaretz daily a day earlier. The newspaper said it had interviewed six accusers and obtained evidence of sexual assault and exploitation going back decades, including of teenagers and younger children.

The allegations surfaced just days after Meshi-Zahav was awarded the nation’s most prestigious honor, the Israel Prize, for his work in ZAKA, the search and rescue organization he co-founded.

The organization, drawing from thousands of volunteers, became internationally known in the 1990s when it responded to a wave of attacks by Palestinian militants.

In a letter addressed to ZAKA volunteers and released Friday, Meshi-Zahav rejected the allegations against him. He said that “these stories are unfounded, gossip and the settling of scores against me.”

He said he was temporarily stepping down from his post because of concern over the “damage that may be caused as a result to this important organization.” He also said he was also relinquishing the Israel Prize.