UN team says incidents of rape likely occurred during Hamas attack on Israel

UN team says incidents of rape likely occurred during Hamas attack on Israel
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A team of UN experts says there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that Hamas committed rape and “sexualised torture” during its attack in southern Israel on 7 October.

Led by special representative of the secretary general (SRSG) Pramila Patten, the team focusing on sexual violence in conflict found “reasonable grounds to believe that such violence may be ongoing”.

The report is meant to gather, analyse and verify information for secretary general Antonio Guterres’s annual report on sexual violence in conflict and for the UN Security Council, said Ms Patten during a press conference about the launch of the report. It is not a fully fledged UN investigation, as Israel has blocked any such activity by the UN’s human rights office, citing bias.

However, it is the most extensive report on sexual violence conducted by an independent body on the October attack. The report is based on interviews with survivors and witnesses of the attack, released hostages, first responders and health and service providers, as well as a review of 5,000 images and approximately 50 hours of footage of the attacks. The mission team, visiting Israel from 29 January to 14 February, also met with families and relatives of hostages still held in captivity.

“Based on the information it gathered, the mission team found clear and convincing information that sexual violence, including rape, sexualised torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment has been committed against hostages and has reasonable grounds to believe that such violence may be ongoing against those still held in captivity,” said the report.

The team also found “that there are reasonable grounds to believe that conflict-related sexual violence occurred in multiple locations” during the attack, including “rape and gang-rape” in at least three locations, including the Nova music festival site.

An embroidered message attached to a tree calls for the release of hostages kidnapped in the deadly 7 October attack, in Tel Aviv (Reuters)
An embroidered message attached to a tree calls for the release of hostages kidnapped in the deadly 7 October attack, in Tel Aviv (Reuters)
A banner in Tel Aviv displays photos of hostages kidnapped in the deadly 7 October attack (Reuters)
A banner in Tel Aviv displays photos of hostages kidnapped in the deadly 7 October attack (Reuters)

“In most of these incidents, victims first subjected to rape were then killed, and at least two incidents relate to the rape of women’s corpses,” the report said.

The report also found a pattern of victims, mostly women, “found fully or partially naked, bound, and shot across multiple locations”.

“Although circumstantial, such a pattern may be indicative of some forms of sexual violence, including sexualised torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” it added.

At Kibbutz Be’eri, Ms Patten said her team “was able to determine that at least two allegations of sexual violence widely repeated in the media were unfounded due to either new superseding information or inconsistency in the facts gathered”.

Palestinians rescue survivors after an Israeli  strike on Shaheen family house in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Saturday, 24 February 2024 (AP)
Palestinians rescue survivors after an Israeli strike on Shaheen family house in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Saturday, 24 February 2024 (AP)
Israeli soldiers patrol as smoke is seen over Gaza after an Israeli bombardment on 4 March 2024 in southern Israel (Getty)
Israeli soldiers patrol as smoke is seen over Gaza after an Israeli bombardment on 4 March 2024 in southern Israel (Getty)

These included a highly publicised allegation involving an attack on a pregnant woman and her foetus, Ms Patten said.

Another was “the interpretation initially made of the body of a girl found separated from the rest of her family, naked from the waist down”, she said. “It was determined by the mission team that the crime scene had been altered by a bomb squad and the bodies moved, explaining the separation of the body of the girl from the rest of her family.”

The report comes nearly five months after the October attacks, which killed about 1,200 people. Some 250 others were taken hostage. Israel’s war against Hamas has since laid waste to the Gaza Strip, killing more than 30,000 people, according to Gaza’s health ministry. The UN says a quarter of Gaza’s 2.3 million people face starvation.

Ms Patten’s key recommendation is to encourage Israel to grant access to the UN human rights chief and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Palestinian territories and Israel “to carry out full-fledged investigations into the alleged violations” – and she expressed hope the UN Security Council would do this.

She also called on Hamas “to immediately and unconditionally release all individuals held in captivity and to ensure their protection, including from sexual violence”.

While Ms Patten and her team also visited the occupied West Bank to meet Palestinian authorities, the mission did not request to visit the Gaza Strip.

Israel has been critical of the UN’s response to the attacks. Mr Guterres said late last year that sexual violence committed on 7 October “must be vigorously investigated and prosecuted”, stressing: “Gender-based violence must be condemned. Anytime. Anywhere.”

“The UN claims to care about women, yet as we speak right now Israeli women are being raped and abused by Hamas terrorists. Where is the UN’s voice? Where is your voice?”, Israel’s UN ambassador Gilad Erdan asked the 193-member UN General Assembly.

“Hamas must face unrelenting pressure to end their sexual violence and release all of the hostages immediately,” he said.

UN experts in February also expressed alarm over “credible allegations” by Palestinian women and girls of sexual assault, including rape, while in Israeli detention.

They said that “at least two female Palestinian detainees were reportedly raped while others were threatened with rape and sexual violence”.

The UN experts also noted that the Israeli army allegedly took and posted online photographs of female detainees in “degrading circumstances”.

Reem Alsalem, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, stated that the actual scale of sexual violence could be much higher than documented.