ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Warning: Graphic contentIsrael’s sexual assault forensic process is at a standstill

Amid war and urgent need to ID bodies, evidence of Hamas’s October 7 rapes slips away

Despite definitive witness testimony, global skepticism persists about the terrorists’ sexual crimes. ToI investigates how a mass-casualty event in a war zone made forensic determination impossible

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

A soldier mans the makeshift mass casualty morgue at the Shura military base near Ramle, October 24, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A soldier mans the makeshift mass casualty morgue at the Shura military base near Ramle, October 24, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Hebrew-language media reported on Wednesday that the Israel Police investigations unit, Lahav 443, has been collecting evidence from terrorist interrogations, witness testimony, and various footage sources about sexual crimes committed by Hamas terrorists during their October 7 onslaught.

These eyewitness testimonies from survivors of the Hamas massacre — in which some 1,400 people were murdered and 240 were taken hostage, the majority of them civilians — are horrific. The sexual abuse committed by Hamas includes acts of gang rape, genital mutilation and necrophilia.

But in the wake of the unprecedentedly large mass-casualty event, physical evidence of sexual assault was not collected from corpses by Israel’s overtaxed morgue facilities amid their ongoing scramble to identify the people killed, many of whose bodies were mutilated and burned. More than a month after Hamas rampaged through border communities near the Gaza Strip and a massive outdoor music festival, Israel is still identifying the dead through disaster victim identification protocols.

The decision — made under war footing and a pressing need to identify the dead — to not use time-consuming crime scene investigation protocols to document rape cases has, however, fueled international skepticism over Hamas’s sexual abuse of victims while it held control over parts of southern Israel on October 7.

The questions and outright skepticism come amid attempts to downplay the scale of Hamas’s atrocities on October 7, especially as international attention quickly moved on from the invaders’ brutality to the Israeli military response, whose aim is to dismantle the terror group.

There is significant evidence of systematic sexual abuse, but morgue officials have not designated individual cases as rape because of a lack of court-compliant physical proof. In addition to survivors’ testimony, a slew of Israeli officials, first responders, and morgue workers have stated that Hamas raped women as part of its assault. The Shin Bet has released clips from videotaped interrogations of captured Hamas perpetrators attesting to their orders to rape Jewish women.

A woman’s body, found on October 7, 2023, with a partially burned head and unclothed from the waist down; video was uploaded to social media and screened by the IDF as part of a raw footage compilation of Hamas atrocities (Screenshot)

Reflecting the government’s official position, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that Hamas committed acts of “murder, rape, kidnapping,” in Hebrew-language remarks, repeated multiple times over the past month. However, the government has not released explicit footage or pressed rape survivors to share their stories. Nor have the forensic services released formal reports on whether their findings were consistent with sexual abuse.

This seemingly official decision not to provide clear evidence of rape to international media has fed persistent criticism, mostly from abroad, and many media outlets are now framing the October 7 rapes as a claim rather than a fully substantiated fact. Social media is now awash with memes parodying “not believing women” who are Israeli or Jewish.

This skepticism of rape claims has been noted at home: On November 5, an Arab Israeli lawmaker said that a compilation of raw attack footage — which the MK, Iman Khatib-Yassin, declined to view when it was screened for Knesset members — did not show evidence of women being raped. (Her party leader swiftly asked for her resignation, and right-wing lawmakers are petitioning to remove her from parliament.)

Over a month after what Israelis are calling “Black Shabbat,” The Times of Israel has examined what we do and do not know about Hamas’s use of rape among the 1,400 killed, and why Israel’s sexual assault forensic process is at a seeming standstill.

The Times of Israel investigation is centered on evidence collected from the bodies of those slaughtered on October 7. An editorial decision was made not to pursue leads to survivors of sexual abuse, and the Defense Ministry declined to discuss intelligence related to the treatment of Hamas-held hostages.

Burnt cars are left behind at the site of the attack three days earlier by Palestinian terrorists on the Supernova desert music near Kibbutz Re’im in the Negev desert in southern Israel, on October 10, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Challenges to making official designations

Physical evidence for rape or sexual abuse can be collected from the deceased in a manner that would be admissible in court by either a forensic pathologist or a police crime scene investigations (CSI) unit. Of the two, only a forensic pathologist, or another medical doctor with special certification in sexual assault, can make a formal recommendation of what the findings suggest.

Rape, or sexual assault, can only be legally determined by the court because the crime requires an element of intent alongside a physical act.

Now, a month after the massacre, the window for collecting physical evidence of rape that can stand up in court is closed, said a forensic official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Under good conditions, authorities would have had about a week to collect evidence from bodies if they were promptly found and professionally handled.

But these were not optimal conditions for evidence collection. In the wake of the massacre, resources were overwhelmingly directed toward identifying victims — not their cause of death — a process that is still ongoing. The circumstances of the mass casualty event and the ongoing war contaminated crime scenes, or did not allow for the collecting of relevant evidence. And in many cases, the bodies were in such states of mutilation or decay when found that it was impossible to obtain evidence.

Bodies collected in the field are bagged and delivered to an emergency morgue set up at the Israel Defense Forces’ Shura Base, near the town of Ramle. Michal Levin Elad, head of the National Forensic Investigative Division of the Israel Police, spoke with The Times of Israel on October 31 at Shura and said that the base’s “prime mission is to identify victims; we were not concerned with how they died or what happened.”

Of the 1,400 people presumed killed on October 7, about 310 soldiers and 840 civilians have been identified. It is unclear if among them are the 58 police officers killed, as well. This means that around 200 bodies remain unidentified.

“We have been working 24/7 on three shifts, more than 100 people a shift,” and still the unit is struggling to process remaining corpses, searching for biometric data, she said. Levin Elad expected further remains to surface, as the army is still scanning the Gaza border area and finding “bones, teeth, and human tissue,” which is then brought to Shura.

Forensic identification lead, police commander Michal Levin Elad, at the makeshift mass casualty morgue at Shura Base, October 31, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

Her unit is in charge of identifying civilians at Shura’s makeshift morgue, constructed out of refrigerated shipping containers. The military runs a parallel process for soldiers.

Given this strain, “we won’t be able to conduct a full CSI, with crime scene identification protocols,” said Superintendent Doron Avigdori on October 31. Avigdori heads the police forensics division in Israel’s central district, covering Shura.

Instead of going through CSI, which would make it possible to produce evidence of crimes, the bodies are being processed through the disaster victim identification (DVI) track, as is common for mass casualty events.

Bodies are scanned for postmortem biometric markers, and sometimes cross-referenced with antemortem information provided by families. Once an identification is made, a medical professional told The Times of Israel, “We try to bury the dead as soon as we can and we try not to make the process longer.”

It is not clear whether some bodies continue for further forensic processing after identification is made, or if rape kits were ever collected. A police spokesperson refused to answer a question about rape kits, saying instead, “This is not the point of this place [Shura].”

Refrigerated containers holding bodies at Israel’s makeshift mass casualty morgue at Shura Base, October 31, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

A second facility involved in identifying the dead is the civilian-run Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine. Abu Kabir is focused on a number of the most mutilated bodies, including charred remains that have little or no genetic material or biometric markers available for comparison, according to sources familiar with the issue.

While Abu Kabir does, unlike Shura’s morgue, routinely document the cause of death for bodies examined there, these bodies arrive in such a state that any tissue or fluid evidence related to sexual assault would have already been destroyed, a source within the facility confirmed.

Untrained personnel at the scene

According to Levin Elad, criminal forensic investigators were quickly summoned to the Shura base. Near the Gaza border, however, the majority of people who collected the human remains were not trained to gather evidence or preserve crime scenes. Instead, many were from body retrieval service ZAKA or medical organizations Magen David Adom and United Hatzalah, or from the army.

“All of the forensic investigators in the country came here,” to Shura, “and the people responsible for collecting the bodies [from the scene] were not forensics investigators,” Levin Elad said.

A ZAKA volunteer collects human remains in a house at Kibbutz Holit near the Gaza Strip on October 26, 2023. (YURI CORTEZ / AFP)

Additionally, many bodies were collected from active battle zones, as concealed terrorists were still being found in Israel for days after October 7. Furthermore, searching for survivors and maintaining security took precedence over preserving evidence, first responders said. Today, many of the hardest-hit communities are still within closed military territory.

Compounding this issue is that bodies continued to be found for days after a warm October 7, often already in significant stages of decay.

From direct encounters with bodies in the field and in morgues, several first responders and emergency workers gave on-record accounts of findings consistent with sexual abuse. The Times of Israel spoke with several people who had firsthand encounters with bodies they perceived to be abused.

Among them, first responder Simcha Greiniman, who leads one of the ZAKA Search and Rescue volunteer teams retrieving bodies across Israel’s south, said he saw direct evidence of sexual abuse, though he’s not qualified to determine it in line with Israeli criminal standards.

Speaking on October 26, Greiniman said he found the body of a woman at Kibbutz Be’eri, lying facedown on a bed, unclothed from the waist down. She had been shot in the back of her head.

ZAKA volunteer Simcha Greiniman in the ruins of Kibbutz Holit, October 26, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

His team, he said, only discovered her body three days after the massacre, and it was already in a state of decay.

“So you understand that we couldn’t see any [criminal forensic] evidence and that’s not our job. Our main goal is to bring the bodies to burial,” he said.

It’s enough to suffer for the rest of my life from what I saw

Asked if he had pictures from the scene, Greiniman said, “I don’t have one picture in my phone. It’s enough to suffer for the rest of my life from what I saw.”

Some emergency workers, he acknowledged, did photograph other scenes and sent pictures directly to official authorities, he said. The Times of Israel was not able to obtain images from various government sources, which cited both victim privacy and the need to protect intelligence sources.

What the victims’ bodies show

IDF Captain (Res) Maayan, part of the medical staff at the makeshift mass casualty morgue, at Shura Base, October 31, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

At Shura, IDF Captain (Res.) Maayan, who said she was unable to share her last name, is a dentist and part of the medical forensic team working to identify bodies.

Maayan said on October 31 that she has seen several bodies that had signs consistent with sexual abuse.

“I can tell that I saw a lot of signs of abuse in the [genital region],” Maayan said, using her hand to euphemistically demonstrate. “We saw broken legs, broken pelvises, bloody underwear,” and women who were not dressed below the waist, she said.

Ina Kubbe, a gender and conflict scholar with Tel Aviv University, confirmed that these are signs consistent with sexual violence, but that a forensic investigation is required for any formal determination of rape.

Shari, another IDF reservist working in the Shura morgue, offered similar testimony from firsthand observation of the deceased, in a recorded video verified by the IDF.

“Yes, we have seen that women have been raped. Children through elderly women have been raped. Forcible entry, to the point that bones were broken,” said Shari, who asked not to share her last name. “We saw genitals cut off,” she added. Shari is part of a special women’s unit that prepares female soldiers’ bodies for burial after mass casualty events. She, too, is not legally qualified to determine rape.

The IDF has also screened, behind closed doors, a 47-minute compilation of raw footage from the Hamas assault, including a video of a mutilated woman whose undergarments had been removed. There are also pictures and videos uploaded to social media providing additional circumstantial evidence supporting rape claims.

Yes, we have seen that women have been raped. Children through elderly women have been raped. Forcible entry, to the point that bones were broken

In their own words: Hamas interrogations

Israeli intelligence services have released several clips from interrogations of Hamas terrorists captured after taking part in the October 7 attack.

In one video, a man said that terrorists were “having sex with dead bodies,” with the intention “to dirty them, to rape them.”

Gender violence scholar Kubbe said that “the concept of ‘dirtying’ is significant because it reflects the intention of the perpetrators to tarnish the honor and dignity of the targeted population.”

“By violating the physical and psychological integrity of individuals through sexual violence, the perpetrators aim to degrade and stigmatize the victims and their entire community. This can have long-lasting consequences, including social ostracism, trauma, and a breakdown of social structures,” Kubbe said.

Another videotaped testimony by a captured terrorist who identified himself as Muhammed Nahed Ahmed El-Arsha said bluntly that Hamas committed acts barred by Islam, including rape.

“According to religion, all of what happened is forbidden,” he said, specifying that he meant “the kidnapping, the raping, the whoring of children.”

Another interrogated terrorist also said that Hamas had given them permission to rape the corpse of a girl.

He said that compatriots did “things a person doesn’t do – beheading people, having sex with dead bodies, meaning the body of a dead young woman,” adding that: “It’s not humans that do that.”

 

“Rape has been used as a tool of war and conflict throughout history, and it continues to be a disturbing and pervasive issue in contemporary conflicts as well,” Kubbe said.

She added that rape is “used as a tool to target specific ethnic or religious groups,” here Jews, and that sexual violence “can be a means of asserting dominance and control over the targeted group.”

All three of the videos linked above were screened on Israeli television channels, after being released by security services.

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