Investigative journalists question Israeli claims as Hamas rejects UN report on 'sexual violence'

Ahram Online , Friday 8 Mar 2024

Hamas on Tuesday said a recent UN report alleging its members committed acts of "sexual violence" against Israeli women on 7 October was "simply false" and pointed to the lack of any victim testimonies.

Pramila Patten
UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten briefs the press on the findings of a UN report on sexual violence during Hamas October 7 attacks, at the UN Headquarters, New York City, March 4, 2024. AFP


The report by UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten, "did not document any testimony from what she calls the victims of these cases," Hamas said in a statement.

"She relied on Israeli institutions, soldiers, and witnesses, who were chosen by the occupation authorities to push towards an attempt to prove this false accusation, which was refuted by all investigations," the statement said.

Referring to allegations that Israeli captives held in Gaza were mistreated, Hamas added: “Mrs Patten's allegations contradict the testimonies of Israeli women about the decent treatment they received from the resistance fighters, as well as the testimonies of released Israeli female captives who confirmed the decent treatment they received during their captivity in Gaza.”

Hamas explained in the statement how such baseless allegations only aim to “demonize” the Palestinian resistance and draw attention away from the compelling evidence of Israeli human rights abuses of Palestinian women and girls.

Concluding the statement, Hamas stressed that Israel’s actions show “a deliberate disregard for the decisions of the International Court of Justice," citing other international reports which documented Israeli crimes and atrocities in Gaza.

They asserted that such accusations would not overshadow the Israeli army’s “genocidal crime and ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians in Gaza.

UN report

On Monday, Patten’s office published a report on the results of its 17-day visit to Israel, which concluded: “There are reasonable grounds to believe that conflict-related sexual violence occurred at several locations… during the 7 October 2023 attacks.”

Lending credence to some of Hamas’ claims about 7 October, the report acknowledged that a major hurdle in its mission was the lack of access to first-hand testimonies alleging sexual violence.

The report also found “clear and convincing information that some captives taken to Gaza have been subjected to various forms of conflict-related sexual violence and has reasonable grounds to believe that such violence may be ongoing.”

However, the report indicated that these "findings" were based on first–hand accounts of released captives.

The report was based on information collected about alleged sexual violence at six distinct locations on 7 October.

In three of the locations – the Nova Music Festival, Road 232, and Kibbutz Re’im – the mission found “reasonable grounds” to believe that rape or other forms of sexual violence had occurred.

However, in the other three locations – Kibbutz Be’eri, Kibbutz Kfar Aza, and the Nahal Oz Military Base – the UN mission was not able to establish whether sexual violence had taken place.

Growing scepticism

These findings cast doubt on some of Israel’s most lurid allegations of sexual violence on 7 October, most notably as portrayed in the New York Times (NYT) feature expose titled “Screams Without Words,” published in late December.

The story’s publication played a key role in bolstering support for Israel’s war in Gaza at a time when the country was coming under increased criticism and condemnation for its genocidal war against 2.4 million Palestinians in Gaza.

The timing of the publication likely helped itself.

The UN report comes on the heels of last week’s investigation by The Intercept showing that the NYT expose was seriously flawed.

The Intercept reporting draws heavily on an interview that one of the NYT freelance reporters who wrote the story, Anat Schwartz, did with Israel’s Channel 12.

In the interview, Schwartz describes how it was impossible to find victims of sexual violence, even after calling 11 Israeli hospitals with wards responsible for treating victims of sexual assault.

Instead, the NYT story relied on second-hand eyewitness testimony.

The Intercept found a pattern of unreliable sources that served as the basis for many claims in the NYT story.

One such source was the basis for one of the story’s most graphic descriptions of sexual violence, which was purported to have taken place at Kibbutz Be’eri.

The account relies heavily on the eyewitness testimony of a paramedic from the Israeli Air Force, who claimed to have seen evidence that two girls were raped at the kibbutz, in addition to other claims like "having pulled a baby out of the garbage" that "had been stabbed multiple times" or that phrases had been written in Arabic on houses using the "blood of victims."

The Intercept points out that there was no forensic evidence to support such a claim, which the NYT author acknowledges in the interview but downplays in the story itself.

In a follow-up to the report in early March, The Intercept cited the kibbutz’s spokesperson, who denied that the girls had been victims of sexual violence.

The UN report came to a similar conclusion, writing: “At least two of the allegations of sexual violence previously reported were determined by the mission team to be unfounded, due to either new superseding information or inconsistency in the information gathered, including first responder testimonies, photographic evidence and other information.”

A major caveat to the UN report that was elided over in most reporting after its release was culpability. While it found that sexual violence most likely occurred, “the mission team was unable to establish the prevalence of sexual violence and concludes that the overall magnitude, scope, and specific attribution of these violations require a fully-fledged investigation.”

This is consistent with the findings of The Intercept, who point out that: “The question has never been whether individual acts of sexual assault may have occurred on  October 7 …  The central issue is whether the New York Times presented solid evidence to support its claim that… ‘attacks against women were not isolated events but part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence on Oct. 7’ — a claim stated in the headline that Hamas deliberately deployed sexual violence as a weapon of war.”

Real criminals?

There has been little evidence suggesting Hamas fighters were responsible for any such violence and not the hundreds of civilians who crossed into the Gaza envelope inside Israel after the barrier around the strip was breached.

The Intercept cites one witness in particular – Raz Cohen – who claimed to have seen a rape at the Nova Music Festival, who said: “Five guys — five civilians from Gaza, normal guys, not soldiers, not [Hamas’ commando forces]. “It was regular people from Gaza with normal clothes.”

Cohen’s and other Israelis’ testimonies have not been independently verified.

The NYT and Western media outlets - or Western politicians - have not issued a retraction or apologies to readers and the public for peddling Israeli claims about “babies beheaded by Hamas” in the immediate aftermath of 7 October.

No major Western paper has undertaken any investigative work to look into Palestinian testimonies on the widespread torture of many among the thousands of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, including beatings, withholding of food and water to detainees for days at a time, and threats of rape to women prisoners.

Israel has refused to stop acts of genocide in its war on Gaza as mandated by the International Court of Justice in January as major international rights organizations continue to condemn Israeli violations of international humanitarian laws.

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