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A U.N. report finds 'reasonable grounds to believe' attacks in Israel included rapes

A memorial at the site of the Nova rave, the deadliest single site of the attacks on Oct. 7. A new report by a United Nations team found "reasonable grounds to believe" that rape took place on Oct. 7, including at the site of the rave.
Menaham Kahana
/
AFP via Getty Images
A memorial at the site of the Nova rave, the deadliest single site of the attacks on Oct. 7. A new report by a United Nations team found "reasonable grounds to believe" that rape took place on Oct. 7, including at the site of the rave.

A report by the United Nations has found "reasonable grounds to believe" that the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel included sexual violence — including rape and gang rape — and that some Israeli hostages experienced such violence while in captivity in Gaza.

The long-awaited report is not a full-fledged U.N. investigation, according to its author, the U.N. special representative for sexual violence in conflict. Israel has blocked such an investigation by the U.N.'s human rights office over what the country's leaders allege is anti-Israel bias.

Still, it represents the most extensive report yet on the subject of sexual violence on Oct. 7 conducted by an independent body based outside of Israel.

The findings are based on dozens of interviews with survivors and witnesses of the attack, first responders and health providers conducted during a 17-day trip to Israel in January and February. The U.N. researchers and specialists also reviewed more than 5,000 photographs and around 50 hours of footage of the attacks.

Rapes likely took place in at least three locations on Oct. 7, the report said. And researchers found "clear and convincing information" about the rape and sexualized mistreatment of hostages in Gaza, warning that such violence may be ongoing. In total, about 1,200 people were killed in the Oct. 7 attack and some 240 taken hostage.

"The mission was a difficult one, in terms of what we heard and the details of the most shocking brutality of the attacks by Hamas and other armed groups that we received. We saw a catalog of the most extreme and inhumane forms of torture and other horrors," Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative, said during a news conference Monday at the United Nations in New York.

Still, she said, the findings do not in "any way legitimize further violence," but rather reinforce the need for a cease-fire, she said.

Perhaps no subject related to the Oct. 7 attacks has come under more intense scrutiny than the issue of sexual violence that day. Skeptical press and social media users have exhaustively compared the stories of eyewitnesses and called into question the credibility of some first responders whose accounts were proven to be false.

Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, has denied the allegations and has accused Israel of using the allegations as a justification for its ongoing military campaign in Gaza, which has killed at least 30,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

No survivors of sexual assault on Oct. 7 have come forward publicly. The U.N. team said they were "made aware of a small number of survivors" still undergoing treatment for trauma, but ultimately they were unable to meet with any.

"Obviously, it's a very sensitive issue, and they need to come forward in their own time on their own terms. So we did not push," Patten said. The team did receive firsthand accounts from released hostages.

The challenges faced by investigators have been many, the report noted, starting with the scale of the attacks. "The vast death toll from the 7 October attacks in multiple locations overstretched the response capacities of the Israeli authorities, which were compelled to prioritize the efforts to regain control of the affected areas, over the collection of evidence for the purpose of investigation," the report stated, according to a copy provided to reporters.

Israeli government agencies could have coordinated better, the report said. Volunteer first responders were inadequately trained, leading to the inadvertent mishandling of evidence or incorrect interpretations of physical remains. Israeli authorities prioritized other objectives, such as identifying victims and burying the dead in accordance with Jewish religious practices, over the collection of forensic evidence. And at least 100 bodies were burned so badly that little evidence could be gathered from them, researchers found.

The team ultimately determined that some accounts of sexual violence could not be verified or were outright unfounded, including several that had been publicized in media reports.

Still, the report found reason to believe that rape occurred in at least three locations: at the site of the Nova rave festival, along Route 232, the main highway along the border with Gaza, and at one of the kibbutzim attacked.

"In most of these incidents, victims were first subjected to rape, and then killed. In at least two incidents related to the rape of women's corpses," Patten said.

Several bodies, mostly women, were found naked or undressed from the waist down, with their hands tied and shot to death, the report said. "Although circumstantial, such a pattern may be indicative of some forms of sexual violence," Patten said.

Patten also visited the West Bank, where she and her staff interviewed Palestinian officials and four recently released detainees about sexual violence on Palestinians in detention committed by Israeli security forces. Other U.N. bodies are already investigating those allegations in greater detail. Patten's team did not visit Gaza.

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

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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.