JERUSALEM (AP) — Accounts given to The Associated Press, along with first assessments by an Israeli rights group, show that sexual assault was part of an atrocities-filled rampage by Hamas and other Gaza militants who killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took more than 240 hostages that day.
While investigators are still trying to determine the scope of the sexual assaults, Israel’s government is accusing the international community, particularly the United Nations, of ignoring the pain of Israeli victims.
Two months after the Hamas attacks on the music festival, farming communities and army posts in southern Israel, police are still struggling to put together the pieces.
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.”
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.
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. Some only had bloodied underwear.
Based on open-source information and interviews, the Physicians for Human Rights Israel report documents 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 says.
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his war cabinet held a tense and emotional meeting with recently released hostages and family members of hostages still held in Gaza. Some of the recently released hostages shared testimonies of sexual abuse during their time in Gaza, participants said.
Separately, a doctor who treated some of the 110 released hostages told the AP that at least 10 men and women among those freed were sexually assaulted or abused, but did not provide further details. He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect the hostages' identities.
According to the Israeli military, 138 hostages, including 15 women, are still held by Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza. Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a military spokesman, said the army is “absolutely” concerned about sexual violence against female hostages.
On Monday, Israel hosted a special event at the United Nations, where former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. 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.
The Office of the U.N. 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 U.N. Human Rights Office.
Israel says 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.