At least 10 of the Israeli civilians released by Hamas, both men and women, were sexually assaulted or abused while in captivity, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.
In a report detailing allegations of severe and widespread sexual abuse by Hamas terrorists during their October 7 onslaught and later against hostages, a doctor who treated some of the 110 hostages released from captivity told the AP that at least 10 men and women among those freed were sexually assaulted or abused.
He did not provide further details, and spoke on condition of anonymity to protect the hostages’ identities.
The doctor’s comments corroborated similar accounts shared at a meeting on Tuesday. The meeting, held between the Israeli war cabinet and a group comprising recently freed hostages and family members of those still held in Gaza, featured firsthand testimonies from some of the released captives. These individuals detailed their experiences of sexual abuse during their captivity, participants said.
Aviva Siegel, who was freed from Hamas captivity last week and whose husband, a US citizen, is still a hostage, reportedly said during the meeting that some of the women hostages were “being touched.” Others said during the meeting that both men and women were sexually assaulted, according to leaks to Hebrew media.
Ronen Tzur, the director of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, said after the gathering that “this was an unusual meeting. Members of the cabinet heard for the first time from freed female hostages describing the difficult things that are going on in the tunnels, including sexual abuse, and the fact that the airstrikes are happening very close to where the captives are being held.”
Under a weeklong truce deal that expired on Friday, 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity in Gaza: 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and one Filipino. Earlier, four hostages were released and one was rescued, and at least three bodies have been recovered. Israel says that Hamas had an opportunity to extend the pause but refused to release all the women held, as the deal entailed. It is believed that 138 hostages remain in Gaza, including some 20 women.
US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller suggested on Monday that Hamas is holding onto the hostages because it does not want them to testify about the sexual abuse they experienced in captivity.
“The fact that they continue to hold women hostages, the fact that they continue to hold children hostages, just the fact that it seems one of the reasons they don’t want to turn women over they’ve been holding hostage, and the reason this pause fell apart, is they don’t want those women to be able to talk about what happened to them during their time in custody,” Miller said in response to a question from a reporter about growing evidence of Hamas rape and sexual abuse on October 7.
State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller suggests “one of the reasons [Hamas doesn’t] want to turn women over that they’ve been holding hostage — and the reason this pause fell apart — is they don’t want those women to talk about what happened to them.” pic.twitter.com/GOlM3PHgVR
— The Recount (@therecount) December 4, 2023
Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a military spokesman, said the army was “absolutely” concerned about sexual violence against female hostages.
Accounts given to The Associated Press, along with first assessments by an Israeli rights group, show that sexual assault was part of the atrocities-filled rampage by Hamas and other Gaza terrorists who killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, on October 7 and took more than 240 hostages.
While investigators are still trying to determine the scope of the sexual assaults, Israel has been accusing the international community, particularly the United Nations, of ignoring the pain of Israeli victims.
“I say to the women’s rights organizations, to the human rights organizations, you’ve heard of the rape of Israeli women, horrible atrocities, sexual mutilation — where the hell are you?” Netanyahu told a news conference Tuesday, switching to English to emphasize the point.
US President Joe Biden called the reports of sexual violence “appalling” and urged the world to condemn “horrific accounts of unimaginable cruelty.”
Two months after the Hamas attacks on a music festival, farming communities, towns and army posts in southern Israel, police are still struggling to put together the pieces.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, priority was given to identifying bodies, not to preserving evidence. Police say they’re combing through 60,000 videos seized from the body cameras of Hamas attackers, from social media and from security cameras, as well as 1,000 testimonies to bring the perpetrators to justice. It has been difficult finding rape survivors, with many victims killed by their attackers.
The group Physicians for Human Rights Israel, which has a record of advocating for Palestinian civilians in Gaza suffering under Israel’s longtime blockade of the territory, published an initial assessment in November.
“What we know for sure is that it was more than just one case and it was widespread, in that this happened in more than one location and more than a handful of times,” Hadas Ziv, policy and ethics director for the organization, said Tuesday. “What we don’t know and what the police are investigating is whether it was ordered to be done and whether it was systematic.”
Hamas has rejected allegations that its men committed sexual assault.
Following are some of the eyewitness accounts, which include potentially disturbing descriptions of severe sexual assault and mutilation.
‘They’re raping me’
Ron Freger fled the music festival when Hamas attacked and said he heard a woman screaming for help. “I was lying in a pit (and) I heard (a girl) yelling: ‘They’re raping me, they’re raping me!’” he told the AP.
Several minutes later, he heard gunshots close by and she fell silent, he said. “The feeling in that moment is one of complete powerlessness. I’m lying in this hole and I have no ability to do anything. I have no weapon, I have nothing, I’m surrounded by other people who are hiding with me and we’re completely powerless,” said the 23-year-old from the northern Israeli town of Netanya.
Last month, the chief of the Israel Police presented to the international news media videotaped testimony of a rape witness at the music festival. Her face blurred, she said she watched terrorists gang-rape a woman as she lay on the ground. The men then stood her up as blood trickled from her back, yanked her hair and sliced her breast, playing with it as they assaulted her. The last man shot her in the head while he was still inside her. The woman in the video described watching the terrorists as she pretended to be dead.
“I couldn’t understand what I saw,” she said.
A combat medic told the AP that he came across half a dozen bodies of women and men with possible signs of sexual assault when he reached one of the attacked communities.
One girl had been shot in the head and was lying on the floor, her legs open and pants pulled down, with what looked like semen on her lower back, said the medic who spoke on condition of anonymity because his unit was classified. Other bodies had mass bleeding around the groin with limbs at distorted angles, he said.
At the Shura military base where victims are being identified, Shari Mendes, a member of the army reserve unit that deals with the identification and religious burial preparation of female soldiers, said some of the women’s bodies came in with little clothing, such as parts of their pajamas. Some only had bloodied underwear.
Based on open-source information and interviews, the Physicians for Human Rights Israel report documented incidents at the music festival, homes around the Gaza Strip and an Israeli military base, all attacked by Hamas.
“It is becoming more apparent that the violence perpetrated against women, men and children also included widespread sexual and gender-based crimes,” it said.
Before the war, Hamas, an Islamic terror group sworn to Israel’s destruction, wasn’t known to use rape as a weapon, said Colin P. Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consulting firm. Its tactics included suicide bombings and shooting attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers.
A country like Israel should have the means to do rigorous testing to confirm if people were sexually assaulted in a more systematic way, said Nidhi Kapur, a specialist on sexual abuse in situations of armed conflict.
“Forensic testing should have been a priority to build a full picture of the attack,” said Kapur, who has worked in the region. “In a conflict you first take care of the survivors, you don’t count bodies.”
Failure to support women
On Monday, Israel hosted a special event at the United Nations, where former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and top technology executive Sheryl Sandberg were among those who criticized what they called a global failure to support women who were sexually assaulted and in some cases killed.
But some groups said Israel isn’t making it easy to investigate.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it requested access to Israel and the Palestinian territories to allow it to collect information from the events that took place on Oct. 7 and 8, and since then, but Israel has not responded to its requests, said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office.
Israel said the office has preexisting biases against Israel and it will not cooperate with the body. Israeli officials said they would consider all options for independent international mechanisms to investigate.
Rights experts say the United Nations is best placed to conduct a fair, credible and impartial investigation.
“These accounts are horrifying and deserve an urgent, thorough, and credible investigation,” said Heather Barr, associate director for the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.