Jerusalem, December 6
A man hiding in a pit during the October 7 Hamas assault on an outdoor music festival in Israel said he heard someone nearby screaming she was being raped.
Elsewhere in the area, a combat paramedic saw the body of a young woman with her legs open, her pants pulled down, and what looked like semen on her lower back.
An army reservist who was tasked with identifying those killed by the militants said some of the women were found wearing only bloodied underwear.
Such accounts given to The Associated Press, along with first assessments by an Israeli rights group, show that sexual assault was part of an atrocities-filled rampage by Hamas and other Gaza militants who killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took more than 240 hostages that day.
While investigators are still trying to determine the scope of the sexual assaults, Israel’s government is accusing the international community, particularly the United Nations, of ignoring the pain of Israeli victims.
“I say to the women’s rights organisations, to the human rights organisations, you’ve heard of the rape of Israeli women, horrible atrocities, sexual mutilation — where the hell are you?” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a news conference Tuesday, switching to English to emphasise the point.
US President Joe Biden called the reports of sexual violence “appalling” and urged the world to condemn “horrific accounts of unimaginable cruelty”.
Two months after the Hamas attacks on the music festival, farming communities and army posts in southern Israel, police are still struggling to put together the pieces.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, priority was given to identifying bodies, not to preserving evidence. Police say they’re combing through 60,000 videos seized from the body cameras of Hamas attackers, from social media and from security cameras as well as 1,000 testimonies to bring the perpetrators to justice. It has been difficult finding rape survivors, with many victims killed by their attackers.
The group Physicians for Human Rights Israel, which has a record of advocating for Palestinian civilians in Gaza suffering under Israel’s longtime blockade of the territory, published an initial assessment in November.
“What we know for sure is that it was more than just one case and it was widespread, in that this happened in more than one location and more than a handful of times,” Hadas Ziv, policy and ethics director for the organization, said Tuesday. “What we don’t know and what the police are investigating is whether it was ordered to be done and whether it was systematic.”
Hamas has rejected allegations that its gunmen committed sexual assault.
‘They’re raping me’
Ron Freger fled the music festival when Hamas attacked and said he heard a woman screaming for help. “I was lying in a pit (and) I heard (a girl) yelling: They’re raping me, they’re raping me!’” he told the AP.
Several minutes later, he heard gunshots close by and she fell silent, he said. “The feeling in that moment is one of complete powerlessness. I’m lying in this hole and I have no ability to do anything. I have no weapon, I have nothing, I’m surrounded by other people who are hiding with me and we’re completely powerless,” said the 23-year-old from the northern Israeli town of Netanya.
Last month, Israel’s police chief presented to the international news media videotaped testimony of a rape witness at the music festival. Her face blurred, she said she watched militants gang-rape a woman as she lay on the ground. The men then stood her up as blood trickled from her back, yanked her hair and sliced her breast, playing with it as they assaulted her. The last man shot her in the head while he was still inside her. The woman in the video described watching the militants as she pretended to be dead.
“I couldn’t understand what I saw,” she said.
A combat medic told the AP that he came across half a dozen bodies of women and men with possible signs of sexual assault when he reached one of the attacked communities.
One girl had been shot in the head and was lying on the floor, her legs open and pants pulled down, with what looked like semen on her lower back, said the medic who spoke on condition of anonymity because his unit was classified. Other bodies had mass bleeding around the groin with limbs at distorted angles, he said.
At the Shura military base where victims are being identified, Shari Mendes, a member of the army reserve unit that deals with the identification and religious burial preparation of female soldiers, said some of the women’s bodies came in with little clothing, such as parts of their pajamas. Some only had bloodied underwear.
Based on open-source information and interviews, the Physicians for Human Rights Israel report documents incidents at the music festival, homes around the Gaza Strip and an Israeli military base, all attacked by Hamas.
“It is becoming more apparent that the violence perpetrated against women, men and children also included widespread sexual and gender-based crimes,” it says.
Before this war, Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, wasn’t known to use rape as a weapon, said Colin P. Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consulting firm. Its tactics included suicide bombings and shooting attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians.
A country like Israel should have the means to do rigorous testing to confirm if people were sexually assaulted in a more systematic way, said Nidhi Kapur, a specialist on sexual abuse in situations of armed conflict.
“Forensic testing should have been a priority to build a full picture of the attack,” said Kapur, who has worked in the region. “In a conflict you first take care of the survivors, you don’t count bodies.” On Tuesday, Netanyahu and members of his war cabinet held a tense and emotional meeting with recently released hostages and family members of hostages still held in Gaza. Some of the recently released hostages shared testimonies of sexual abuse during their time in Gaza, participants said.
Separately, a doctor who treated some of the 110 released hostages told the AP that at least 10 men and women among those freed were sexually assaulted or abused, but did not provide further details. He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect the hostages’ identities.
According to the Israeli military, 138 hostages, including 15 women, are still held by Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza. Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a military spokesman, said the army is “absolutely” concerned about sexual violence against female hostages.
Failure to support women
On Monday, Israel hosted a special event at the United Nations, where former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and top technology executive Sheryl Sandberg were among those who criticized what they called a global failure to support women who were sexually assaulted and in some cases killed.
But some groups say Israel isn’t making it easy to investigate.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said it requested access to Israel and the Palestinian territories to allow it to collect information from the events that took place on October 7 and 8, and since then, but Israel has not responded to its requests, said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Office.
Israel says the office has preexisting biases against Israel and it will not cooperate with the body. Israeli officials said they would consider all options for independent international mechanisms to investigate.
Rights experts say the United Nations is best placed to conduct a fair, credible and impartial investigation.
“These accounts are horrifying and deserve an urgent, thorough, and credible investigation,” said Heather Barr, associate director for the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. AP
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