U.N. report: ‘Convincing’ information Hamas raped, tortured hostages

A team of United Nations experts tasked with gathering information on sexual violence linked to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel found “reasonable grounds to believe” that some victims were sexually assaulted, including rape and gang rape, according to a U.N. report released Monday.

“In most of these incidents, victims first subjected to rape were then killed,” a press release announcing the report’s findings said. “The mission team also found a pattern of victims, mostly women, found fully or partially naked, bound, and shot across multiple locations.”

The 23-page report said the team also found “clear and convincing information” that some of the women and children hostages taken back to Gaza that day by Hamas were subjected to “rape and sexualized torture and sexualized cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” There were “reasonable grounds to believe,” it said, “that this violence may be ongoing.”

Hamas has denied that its forces sexually abused any of the more than 1,200 Israelis killed or 253 captured on that day. The issue has been among the most volatile of the Israel-Hamas war, sparking extensive media accounts, outrage and suspicion, but little conclusive information.

The release of the report, which also discussed allegations of “conflict-related sexual violence by Israeli security forces and settlers” against Palestinians on the West Bank, came on a day of swirling charges and countercharges.

In a fiery address to the U.N. General Assembly, Philippe Lazzarini, the director of UNRWA — the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees that has worked in Gaza and the West Bank for the past 75 years — accused Israel of a “deliberate and concerted campaign to undermine [UNRWA] operations and ultimately end them” with misinformation, targeted attacks on its infrastructure, and restrictions on its movements in the West Bank and Israel.

“The repeated calls by the government of Israel to eliminate the agency are not about neutrality,” he said. “The campaign against UNRWA is intended to shift the longstanding political power interests for peace in the occupied Palestinian territory set by the [U.N.] General Assembly and the Security Council without consulting either body.”

If it succeeds, he said, “the entire humanitarian response in Gaza will crumble.”

Lazzarini said, in remarks that were met with widespread applause in the massive assembly hall, that UNRWA’s ability to fulfill its U.N.-ordered mandate is already “seriously threatened,” with the withdrawal of funding by 16 countries, among them the United States and Germany.

The funding cuts came after Israel said it had evidence that 12 of UNRWA’s 13,000 employees in Gaza had been involved in the Oct. 7 attacks. After Israeli authorities informed Lazzarini verbally of the charges on Jan. 18 he fired the accused because of the “gravity of the situation,” he said, but “no further information has been provided to me.” Two of the men accused are believed to have been killed. The charges and overall UNRWA operations are being investigated by an internal U.N. body and an independent panel headed by French former foreign minister Catherine Colonna.

Since then, Israel has released video from Oct. 7 showing a man it identified as an UNRWA social worker helping to put the body of a slain Israeli into a car, ostensibly to be taken back inside Gaza. Although more than 100 hostages were released during a negotiated week-long pause in the fighting in November, and there are ongoing negotiations to release the rest, an unknown number of those in Hamas captivity are believed to be dead.

Video is said to show U.N. relief worker taking body of Israeli shot on Oct. 7

On Monday, Israel released what it said was a declassified recording of an intercepted telephone call by an UNRWA teacher “bragging” about the Oct. 7 attacks. The government also released an additional three names of “terrorists employed by UNRWA” and said that more than 450 of the agency’s employees are “military operatives in terror groups in Gaza.” Those claims could not be immediately independently verified.

Israel has previously said that UNRWA itself is a terrorist organization.

In an earlier General Assembly session Monday, called to discuss the most recent of three U.S. vetoes of Security Council resolutions demanding an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza, Robert Wood, the alternate U.S. representative, said that such a measure “would not achieve the goal of a sustainable peace and may in fact, run counter to it.” Instead, he urged members to support a U.S. draft resolution backing negotiations for a temporary cease-fire that would allow increased humanitarian aid to Gaza and the release of hostages.

At the same meeting, held before the release of the sexual violence report, Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan called out the council’s repeated failure to explicitly condemn the attacks by Hamas, even as it has extensively criticized Israeli military actions in Gaza. “The U.N. claims to care about women,” he said. “Yet as we speak right now, Israeli women are being raped and abused by Hamas terrorists. … Deafening silence. Sure, we have heard the empty words of U.N. officials calling for the release of the hostages. But have we seen any of them take action? Nothing.”

The U.N. report did not assign specific blame to Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad or what it said were “other Palestinian paramilitary organizations … [and] armed and unarmed elements” entering Israel from Gaza in three “cumulative waves” on Oct. 7 and did not “gather information and/or draw conclusions” of responsibility.

“Such attribution,” it said, “would require a fully-fledged investigative process,” which it called for in its recommendations.

But Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said Monday on social media that Israel “welcomes the explicit recognition” of a U.N. body on “the commission of sexual crimes by Hamas.”

Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, led the report team of technical experts — including a forensic pathologist and specialists in ethical treatment of survivors of sexual violence. The team interviewed survivors and witnesses of the Oct. 7 attacks — although the report notes that they did not speak directly with any of the survivors of the alleged sexual violence on that day.

The number of survivors is unknown, but a “small number” of them are reportedly undergoing treatment and are experiencing severe mental distress and trauma, the report says. “Despite concerted efforts to encourage them to come forward, the mission team was not able to interview any of these survivors/victims,” according to the press release.

The team also reviewed over 5,000 photographs and about 50 hours of footage of the attacks, and visited a morgue, a military base and the locations of several attacks.

The mission team’s mandate was to gather, analyze and verify information on incidents of conflict-related sexual violence in the context of the attacks, though the report’s authors caution not to interpret the document as “an investigation.”

The mission team adopted the standard of proof of “reasonable grounds to believe,” based on “its own assessment of the credibility and reliability of the witnesses it met” and by verifying the sources and methodologies of reports produced by others, cross-referencing information and assessing whether “there was sufficient credible and reliable information … to make a finding in fact,” the report said.

Among the challenges the team faced, the report said, were “the magnitude of the situation,” with many casualties spread over a wide area and multiple perpetrators; the high number of burned bodies; the loss of “potentially valuable evidence due to the interventions” of first responders and soldiers without training in collecting forensic evidence, leading to “erroneous interpretations” of what they found; and religious sensitivities that led to dressing, covering, repositioning or quickly burying bodies.

It also cited a “lack access to first-hand testimonies” of surviving victims. Instead, the report said, team members met with “a small number” of Oct. 7 survivors and witnesses “who provided information on instances of sexual violence,” including some whose recollections differed from earlier accounts. The reported noted that “trust in international institutions or international organizations, such as the United Nations, are at an all-time low amongst many survivors and/or witnesses … making them reluctant to come forward.”

The report, in occasionally graphic detail, concluded that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that sexual violence had occurred, including rape and gang rape, in at least three locations, including the Nova music festival site, Road 232 and Kibbutz Reim. “Credible circumstantial information, which may be indicative of some forms of sexual violence, including genital mutilation, sexualized torture, or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, was also gathered,” it said.

It determined that at least two alleged instances of sexual violence reported in the media were unfounded, including the “graphically publicized case of a pregnant woman whose womb had reportedly been torn open.”

“The mission team was unable to establish the prevalence of sexual violence and concludes that the overall magnitude, scope, and specific attribution of these violations would require a fully-fledged investigation,” the report said.

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