The United Nations has heard accounts of sexual violence during the 7 October attacks by Hamas, in a meeting where speakers also attacked women’s rights activists and UN officials for not doing more to investigate or condemn these crimes.
Israeli officials and frontline workers, senior US politicians and activists from both countries spoke at the meeting on Monday, organised in part by former Meta executive Sheryl Sandberg. She told those gathered that “silence is complicity”.
Hamas denies that its fighters carried out sexual violence; Sandberg asked if the world should believe them, or “the women whose bodies tell us how they spent the last minutes of their lives” and called for a “full and fair investigation” from the UN.
Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in a recorded message, said: “It is outrageous that some who claim to stand for justice are closing their minds and their hearts to the victims of Hamas.”
US president Joe Biden denounced the alleged sexual violence, calling on the world to condemn such conduct “without equivocation” and “without exception”.
“Reports of women raped – repeatedly raped – and their bodies being mutilated while still alive – of women corpses being desecrated, Hamas terrorists inflicting as much pain and suffering on women and girls as possible and then murdering them,” Biden said at a campaign fundraiser in Boston. “It is appalling.”
In a statement on its Telegram channel, Hamas denounced Biden’s statements as false accusations and said he was joining Israel’s effort to cover up war crimes in Gaza committed with US support.
The UN meeting, attended by about 800 people including diplomats from dozens of countries, watched videos from police interviews with first responders who described genital mutilation and shooting at breasts. A survivor of the attack on the Supernova rave described witnessing a gang-rape.
Two first responders from Israel addressed the UN in person. Simcha Greinman, who collected victims’ remains from the sites of attacks, described finding a woman’s body, naked from the waist down, leaning over a bed.
The corpse had been booby trapped with a live grenade, hidden in the woman’s hand, he added. Among the bodies he recovered were two people who had suffered genital mutilation, one a woman who had “nails and different objects” in her genitals, the other so badly damaged “we couldn’t even identify if it’s a man or a woman”.
Shari Mendes, an architect who prepares bodies for burial, said her team leader “saw several female soldiers who were shot in the crotch, intimate parts, vagina, or shot in the breast. This seemed to be systematic genital mutilation of a group of victims.”
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand described video of a fresh bloodstain on the crotch of a teenage hostage, visible when she was dragged out of a Jeep in Gaza soon after her abduction, as evidence of sexual assault, and joined other speakers calling for activists to condemn Hamas.
“When I saw the list of women’s rights organisations who have said nothing, I nearly choked. Where is the solidarity?” she told the meeting.
A UN commission of inquiry investigating war crimes on both sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict has said it would focus on sexual violence by Hamas in the 7 October attacks on Israel and was about to launch an appeal for evidence, Reuters reported last week.
However its work is likely to be hampered by the fact that Israel has not cooperated with the commission, which it accuses of having an anti-Israel bias.
Meni Binyamin, the head of the International Crime Investigations Unit of the Israeli police, said that “dozens” of women and some men were raped by Hamas militants.
“We are investigating sexual crimes against both women and men perpetrated by Hamas terrorists,” Binyamin said in an interview with The New York Times. “There were violent rape incidents, the most extreme sexual abuses we have seen, of both women and men. I am talking about dozens.”
He cited autopsies, forensic evidence and confessions from captured Hamas fighters, as well as testimony, videos and still images of the attack. He said he could not comment further on an ongoing investigation.
Evidence of sexual violence that has been made public by Israeli authorities includes accounts from surviving witnesses and first responders who handled the damaged bodies.
Women’s rights groups in Israel warned last month of significant failings in preserving forensic evidence that could have shone a light on the scale of sexual violence committed against women and girls in last month’s Hamas attacks.
Several incidents of sexual assault and rape from 7 October have been documented by Hamas body camera footage, CCTV, material uploaded to social media, and photographs and videos taken by civilians and first responders, according to several people involved in analysing the footage. Survivor and witness testimonies, many from the Supernova rave, describe seeing women being raped before they were shot.
• Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available from the following organisations. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 500 2222. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html