Israel Says Solving "Damaged Puzzle" Of Sexual Violence After Hamas Attack

More than 10 weeks after the bloody Hamas attack on Israel, accounts of sexual violence are on the rise.

Israel Says Solving "Damaged Puzzle" Of Sexual Violence After Hamas Attack

More than 10 weeks after the bloody Hamas attack on Israel, accounts of sexual violence are on the rise.

But the scarcity of survivor testimonies and the lack of forensic evidence make it difficult to assess their scale.

"Hamas used rape and sexual violence as weapons of war," Israeli ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan said in early December, as Israel accused international bodies of an inadequate response.

In recent weeks, officials have reiterated allegations that the operatives who crossed over from the Gaza Strip on October 7 committed violent gang rape, genital mutilation, and engaged in sexual acts with children and corpses.

Witnesses and experts interviewed by AFP said a full picture of the atrocities or their systematic nature had still not been established after the chaos of the huge attack, which killed about 1,140 people in Israel, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

In the days after October 7, hundreds of bodies arrived at the Shura military base in central Israel, some so burnt and disfigured that delicate work was required for examination.

Police spokeswoman Mirit Ben Mayor said there have been no forensic reports of sexual violence, while Hamas has rejected the accusations, saying they were intended to "demonize" the group.

"The bodies were not checked for rape; they were checked for identification" before the swift burial Judaism traditionally requires, she said.

AFP spoke to one of the reservists tasked with identifying and washing the bodies of female soldiers after the attack.

"We were in such a state of shock," said Shari, whose full name is being withheld at the army's request.

"Many young women arrived in bloody shrouded rags with just their underwear, and the underwear was often very bloody.

"Our team commander saw several soldiers who were shot on the crotch, intimate parts, vagina or shot in the breasts," she said.

"It is very difficult to give you exact numbers," Shari said. An architect by trade, she said she was not trained to deal with atrocities on such a scale.

Chaotic 

The Hamas attack was the deadliest in Israel's 75-year history.

Israel's relentless retaliatory bombardment and ground assault in Gaza has killed at least 20,057 people, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Dvora Bauman, a gynaecologist in Jerusalem who specialises in helping victims of sexual abuse, said the recognition of sexual violence in Hamas's attack came too late.

Most rescue workers, often Orthodox men, "didn't think of rape at all" as they rapidly responded to the crisis, she said.

Eli Hazen, 56, a volunteer with the Zaka organisation which recovers and identifies bodies in accordance with Jewish tradition, said "there was a tremendous amount of miscommunication" at the time.

There was a lack of coordination "between different aspects of the rescue mission, the army, the police", he said.

"It's hard to say exactly what happened in every particular square centimetre."

While he said "we obviously didn't see anything before or during" the events, he described finding the body of a woman shot in the back of the head in Kibbutz Beeri, naked from the waist down.

Hazen said her body was kneeling at the foot of a bed in a position suggesting she had been abused.

In another ruined house in the same kibbutz, the body of a young woman lay beneath the corpse of an operative, neither of them fully dressed, he told AFP.

The bodies were in bad condition, having begun to decay, and it is very difficult to be sure about what happened, Hazen said.

Another Zaka volunteer, Simcha Greeneman, said in one kibbutz he had discovered a dead woman with sharp objects in her vagina, including nails.

French legal expert Celine Bardet, founder of the We Are not Weapons of War NGO, which advocates against conflict-related sexual violence, said it was a clear example of sexual violence.

Another she cited was the treatment of Shani Louk, a young German-Israeli woman captured and killed by the operatives.

Images and footage on social media showed her stripped body in the back of a pick-up truck, battered and spat upon.

'Take off your clothes' 

In cases of rape the situation is more complex.

Experts said the victims had been killed and exhumation, prohibited in Judaism, was unlikely.

Eyewitness accounts are mounting in the media, especially from survivors of the Supernova music festival where about 3,000 people had gathered in the desert near the Gaza border.

One of the event's organisers, Rami Shmuel, returned to the scene the day after the attack.

He described finding three young women, "naked from the waist down, legs spread".

"One had the face burnt," he said. Another was "shot in the face" while the last had been "shot all over the lower part of her body".

More than 360 people were killed at the festival, according to Israeli figures.

Shmuel found body after body, but said he never saw "a naked man, a man whose legs were spread".

On social media, there is a tide of images alongside condemnations of "mass femicide".

The Israeli army has shared documents it said were found on the bodies of Hamas fighters, including a phrasebook explaining how to say "take off your trousers" and "take off your clothes" in Hebrew.

In at least two unsourced videos of interrogations of alleged Hamas members, they are heard talking about instructions given to rape women.

Contacted by AFP, Israeli security agency Shin Bet, the police and the army said they had not released these videos.

'Piece by piece' 

As it stands, "we can't establish the scale or the precise details of the abuses, the modus operandi, or how many people were involved," said Bardet.

She said she was disappointed Israeli authorities were "not cooperating", including by rejecting an independent international investigation.

Israeli diplomats contacted by AFP branded the UN Human Rights Council's commission of an inquiry "biased", accusing its members of being "anti-Semitic" and "anti-Israel".

The International Criminal Court, whose chief prosecutor Karim Khan has visited the region since the war began, could decide to investigate sexual violence.

But this will likely take years, according to law professor Cochav Elkayam-Levy, head of an inquiry commission on child and gender-based violence during the Hamas attacks.

She emphasised that women subjected to sexual violence often take years to come forward.

"We'll never know what happened to women. We'll never know the extent of the crime," she said. It's a "damaged puzzle that we are now building, piece by piece."