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Israel presses U.N. to investigate charges of sexual violence by Hamas fighters

Demonstrators at a rally in London wave Israeli flags and hold posters of Israeli hostages on Sunday during a protest over the United Nations' response to allegations of rape and other sexual crimes committed by Hamas militants during the Oct. 7 attacks.
Henry Nicholls
AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators at a rally in London wave Israeli flags and hold posters of Israeli hostages on Sunday during a protest over the United Nations' response to allegations of rape and other sexual crimes committed by Hamas militants during the Oct. 7 attacks.

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions of graphic violence and sexual assault.

The evidence of sexual violence on Oct. 7, Israel says, is overwhelming: Witness accounts of militants raping women; bodies of women discovered with their clothes removed; others shot through the head and the breast.

For two months, Israeli officials have shared what they say proves Hamas fighters committed rape and other sexual assaults during the militant group's attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that left 1,200 Israelis dead, including more than 300 women.

In recent weeks, Israel has accused major international groups, including the United Nations, of being slow to acknowledge and condemn the sexual violence, which Hamas has denied.

"I say to the women's rights organizations, to the human rights organizations, you've heard of the rape of Israeli women, horrible atrocities, sexual mutilation: Where the hell are you?" said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference on Tuesday.

This week, the pressure on United Nations officials rose after a remarkable session on Monday that included firsthand accounts from Israeli responders of injuries they saw on the bodies of victims.

In response, U.N. officials have defended themselves and called for investigations into the allegations.

What Israel says happened to women on Oct. 7

In total, Israel says it has collected more than 1,500 eyewitness accounts of rape or evidence of sexual violence on Oct. 7.

At the U.N. on Monday, testimony from three Israelis — a police officer, a first responder and a member of a morgue team that processed bodies — described and listed details of Israel's case.

Simcha Greiniman, a volunteer rescue worker who helped collect bodies on Oct. 7, recounted discovering the body of a woman laying on the floor of her home.

"She was naked. She had nails and different objects in her female organs," he said, visibly emotional and hesitating between words. "She was abused in a way we could not understand and could not deal with."

In another home, Greiniman encountered the body of a woman leaning on a bed, naked from the waist down, shot through the back of her head, he said.

"I'm standing in front of you to make sure that you hear the voices of those women that cannot stand next to us now and be here to scream out what happened to them," Greiniman said.

Yael Reichert, a superintendent of an Israeli national police unit, recounted testimony from survivors of the attacks and first responders who witnessed the immediate aftermath.

A survivor from the Nova rave, a music festival where hundreds of young people were killed, told responders that "everything was an apocalypse of corpses," with dead women who were missing clothes, Reichert said.

A first responder at a kibbutz told Israeli officials that they encountered the body of a woman in the shower of a home with her hands tied, Reichert said. In a video played before the U.N. audience, another first responder described seeing gunshot wounds to women's breasts and the genitals of men and women alike. In another video, a woman described as a survivor of the rave attack said she witnessed multiple men rape the same woman, then mutilate her.

At the base where the bodies of victims were taken for identification, staff were shocked by "the extent of the cruelty, the atrocities we witnessed," said Shari Mendes, a member of an Israeli reserve unit charged with preparing bodies of female soldiers for burial.

For weeks after Oct. 7, staff members worked through hundreds of bodies, many of them charred, injured or mutilated beyond recognition, she said. Some arrived at the base with limbs removed.

"Many young women arrived in bloody, shredded rags, or just in underwear, and their underwear was often very bloody," Mendes recalled. A leader of her unit "saw several female soldiers who were shot in the crotch, intimate parts, vagina, or shot in the breast" in what "seemed to be a systematic genital mutilation of a group of victims," Mendes added.

Israeli officials have also circulated videos of what they say are interrogations of Hamas fighters captured on Oct. 7. In brief video clips played at the U.N. on Monday, two men said they witnessed sexual violence during the attacks.

"These were not merely sick, spur-of-the-moment decisions to defile and mutilate Israeli women and girls," said Gilad Erdan, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations. "This was premeditated. This was planned. This was instructed."

NPR cannot independently verify allegations of sexual violence. Hamas denies that its fighters committed sexual assault and rape.

The U.N. is defending itself against Israeli criticism

The U.N. has been a focus of Israel's criticism over this issue.

"To these organizations, Israeli women are not women. The rape of Israelis is not an act of rape. Their silence has been deafening," Erdan said Monday. Erdan sent photo evidence of the Hamas assaults to UN Women, the U.N. agency dedicated to women's issues and gender equality, to which the agency did not respond, he said.

In a statement, UN Women responded that United Nations procedures "can appear to be slow-moving" and said it has been closely following reports of "brutal acts of gender-based violence against women in Israel" since the allegations first came to light.

Asked about the allegations at a press conference Wednesday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said he supported an investigation.

"Atrocious forms of sexual violence need to be thoroughly investigated. We need to make sure that justice is served because that's what we owe the victims," Türk said.

And in a Wednesday letter to the U.N. Security Council about the dangers faced by civilians in Gaza, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged the Oct. 7 allegations. "Accounts of sexual violence during the attacks are appalling," he wrote.

Health officials in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip say that about 16,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli airstrikes since Oct. 7. They don't break out the numbers of Hamas fighters that includes but say most of the dead are women and children.

U.S. suggests that the issue of sexual assault is why some hostages are still in captivity

A week-long cease-fire between Israel and Hamas last month allowed for the release of more than 100 hostages, all of them women and children, in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli detention.

But 138 hostages remain in captivity, including 15 additional women, Israeli officials say.

Negotiations to extend the cease-fire to free all the remaining hostages broke down last week.

"It seems one of the reasons they don't want to turn women over that they've been holding hostage, and the reason this pause fell apart, is they don't want those women to be able to talk about what happened to them during their time in custody," said State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller at a press briefing Monday.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.