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For Israel, UN Sexual Violence Report Is Too Little, Too Late

A recent UN report concludes that Hamas sexually assaulted hostages in its October attack on Israel, urging global condemnation
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March 7, 2024
Protestors gather at the offices of the United Nations Women on November 27, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

(The Media Line) A new United Nations report released on March 4 concluded that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe Hamas committed sexual crimes as part of its October 7 attack against Israel, almost five months ago.

The report, released by Pramila Patten, the UN envoy that deals with sexual violence in conflict, detailed incidents of sexual violence and “sexualized torture.” In addition to the crimes committed during the attack itself, the report concludes that the Israeli hostages remaining in Hamas captivity are likely still subject to ongoing sexual violence. The Gaza-based terrorist organization has persistently denied the allegations of sexual abuse since they surfaced almost immediately after the attack.

“Hamas and its allies are trying to discredit the report, to escape from this horrific shame,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog posted on his X account on Tuesday. “They will not succeed as the testimonies are shocking indeed. Therefore, now the world must react strongly by condemning and punishing Hamas.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz welcomed the report but called the country’s ambassador to the UN back for consultations, due to what he called attempts by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres to “dissolve” the report and “absolve Hamas of responsibility.”

For many in Israel, the report came far too late. Women’s rights organizations in the country sent representatives to UN headquarters in New York City to protest the silence that followed the attacks. Senior Israeli officials frequently expressed their disappointment with the mute and then delayed response.

“Usually in armed conflicts, it takes time, often after the fighting is over, for the picture of sexual violence to clear up,” said Dr. Alona Hagay-Frey, a research fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and author of the book “Sex and Gender Crimes in the New International Law: Past, Present, Future.” “But here, this was a highly documented attack, documented by the perpetrators themselves. The extensive visual documentation in real time was unprecedented. It was live, colorful, and didn’t require extensive research. This is the source of the disappointment.”

“Women’s organizations have always promised to stand by women, believe them, and not remain silent as once was customary,” Hagay-Frey added.

“The international community should be ashamed,” said Anne Herzberg, legal adviser to NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based watchdog organization that reports on alleged anti-Israel bias in certain nongovernmental organizations. “The report highlights failures by the UN and other international organizations. There was so much denialism going around about the sexual violence.”

Earlier this year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said that it invited Patten, the UN special envoy on sexual violence, “against the backdrop of UN bodies such as the UN Women organization ignoring the reports of the appalling cases that have been uncovered.” The report was a result of Patten’s 17-day visit to the area, during which she gathered information.

“The fact that the Israeli government had to invite the UN to issue such a report, to combat such denialism, is egregious,” Herzberg told The Media Line. “It points to the lack of coverage of this issue by groups like Amnesty International Human Rights Watch and other women’s rights organizations. These groups should have been chanting this cause, which should not have been left solely to Jewish groups and celebrities.”

As Hamas terrorists stormed the border, they raided communities and army bases. They also entered the Nova music festival, which was held just a few kilometers from Israel’s border with Gaza. Throughout the attack, the terrorists filmed their actions, often broadcasting them live on various social media platforms. The festival was attended by thousands of teenagers and young adults. Over 300 partygoers were killed by Hamas and testimonials of incidents of rape, including gang rape, and genital mutilation surfaced days after the attack.

The UN report said that there was evidence of “multiple incidents whereby victims were subjected to rape and then killed” at the festival, including the rape of corpses. The report relied mainly on testimonies by survivors and witnesses of the attacks, released hostages, health providers, and first responders. Also, 50 hours of footage of the attack and 5,000 photos were reviewed in the process. Both Israeli officials and the UN report do not have an exact number of the victims of sexual violence. The report said Patten had made “concerted efforts to encourage them to come forward.”

“There are witness accounts of hostages that were released, there is forensic evidence and reports from pathologists and first responders, harsh testimonies from people who saw the sexual violence while they were hiding,” Hagay-Frey told The Media Line. “You don’t need the actual victim or survivor to say what’s happening to understand the full picture.”

One of the videos that quickly went viral on social media was the half-naked body of a dead young woman being dragged through the streets of Gaza as onlookers cheered. Another video showed a young woman being forcefully dragged from a car as blood stains were clearly visible on her backside.

According to Hagay-Frey, there are various reasons for the delayed response. One of them is the sharp rise in antisemitism that came soon after the war began. She also attributes it to Israel being identified as the stronger side of the conflict with the Palestinians.

“The international community had a hard time grasping that the weaker side of the conflict could be responsible for such crimes, as the tendency is to stand up for the weaker side,” she said. “It was clear that they are ignoring the crimes committed against Israelis in favor of the struggle for Palestinian rights.”

The UN report did not implicitly blame Hamas and also stated that some of the evidence was circumstantial. Also noted was the fact that many of the victims’ bodies were burnt, making it impossible to gather forensic evidence from them.

“Attribution would require a fully-fledged investigative process,” the report read.

“The evidence has been there from the beginning and there has been pretty much silence about it. Now there is an official UN document that cannot be ignored and will hopefully generate more attention to the issue.” – Anne Herzberg

“The evidence has been there from the beginning and there has been pretty much silence about it,” said Herzberg. “Now there is an official UN document that cannot be ignored and will hopefully generate more attention to the issue.”

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