Israeli accounts of sexual violence by Hamas rise but justice is remote

December 6, 2023 7:27 am

The personal belongings of festival-goers are seen at the site of an attack on the Nova Festival by Hamas gunmen from Gaza, near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. [Source: Reuters]

On Oct. 7, the day Hamas attacked, the Israeli military set up an impromptu morgue of refrigerated shipping containers at the Shura defence base in central Israel to identify and prepare the dead for burial. Of the 1,200 people killed that day, authorities said at least 300 were women.

Israeli police are investigating possible sexual crimes by some of the few hundred people that they arrested after the Oct. 7 attack. Their goal is to try every suspect they have in custody.

But at the morgue where Mendes worked, the women’s clothes were buried with them before police investigators could examine them. In Jewish burial law, the dead must be treated with dignity and laid to rest as soon as possible. Everything that is a part of the body is buried together, so some women were buried with their bloodstained clothes.

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It’s just one of the challenges facing the investigation into the alleged sexual crimes committed during the attack, the bloodiest in Israel’s 75-year history.

At some sites battles raged for days, making it impossible to enter. Some evidence was gathered, but police say they face a challenge after opportunities were lost to gather perishable evidence to link atrocities to specific suspects.

An Israeli military spokesperson told Reuters the first priority in the mass casualty event was to identify corpses so families could be informed as soon as possible. In the first days, many did not know if their relatives were dead, wounded or taken to Gaza.

Israel’s justice ministry has said “victims were tortured, physically abused, raped, burned alive, and dismembered.” Hamas vigorously denies the allegations of sexual assault or mutilation by members of its armed wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, on Oct. 7 or after that.

Mendes’ account is one of seven given to Reuters by first responders or others dealing with the dead that attest to alleged sexual violence. Those people said they found women semi-naked, bound, eviscerated, stripped, bruised, shot in the head or torched, at two communities including Kibbutz Beeri, and at an open-air music festival near the Gaza border fence.

Reuters reviewed images matching some of the descriptions or attesting to other possible atrocities. However, it could not independently verify all the accounts.

Taher al-Nono, the media adviser to the head of political bureau of Hamas, denied Hamas fighters were responsible for any sexual assaults in the attack and called for “a serious and impartial international investigation into the matter”.

A U.N. commission of inquiry investigating war crimes on both sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict will probe the allegations of sexual violence by Hamas, amid Israeli criticism the U.N. had remained silent. Israel accuses the commission of bias and has said it will not cooperate with the investigation.