UN releases report on sexual violence on 7 October and against Palestinian detainees

UN releases report on sexual violence on 7 October and against Palestinian detainees
The UN mission was on the invitation of the Israel government and also analysed reports of sexual abuse against Palestinians in Israeli jails
5 min read
05 March, 2024
Pramila Patten the UN special envoy for sexual violence in conflict led the team on the 17 day mission [GETTY]

The UN announced on Monday it had completed its mission in Israel to examine claims of sexual violence by Hamas fighters during the 7 October attacks, as well as reports of sexual abuse against Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails.

A team of experts led by UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten, on the invitation of the Israeli government, spent 17 days in Israel and Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, holding meetings, conducting confidential interviews, and examining hours of video footage and thousands of images.

Patten, speaking in a press conference to announce the findings, said the objective of the mission was to gather, analyse, and verify reports of conflict-related sexual violence related to the 7 October attack and its aftermath.

The mission also met representatives in the occupied West Bank in response to allegations of sexual assaults and the inhumane and degrading treatment of Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails which is said to have surged over the past five months.

The 24-page UN report found there were "reasonable grounds to believe that conflict-related sexual violence occurred during the 7 October attacks in multiple locations across Gaza periphery, including rape and gang rape, in at least three locations".

Fighters from Hamas broke the siege of Gaza on 7 October and attacked nearby Israeli villages, reportedly killing around 1,200 people, according to Israel's government.

The fighters also took 253 people back to Gaza, holding them as hostages with the reported aim of exchanging them for Palestinian detainees held in Israeli jails.

Since then, the Israeli army has conducted an indiscriminate brutal air, land, and sea attack on the Gaza Strip that has killed 30,500 Palestinians, most of them women and children, as well as some of its own hostages.

Hamas repeatedly denied accusations that sexual violence took place on 7 October and had called for an international investigation into the allegations.

Not an 'investigative' mission

Patten said that her team, which included a forensic pathologist, digital and open-source information analysts, and specialists in safe and ethical interviewing, was not on an "investigative" mission.

"I must stress that my mission was neither intended nor mandated to be investigative in nature, this is a mandate vested in other UN bodies," she said, adding that the parameters of the mission were agreed in advance with Israeli authorities.

Patten, who is a women’s rights activist and Mauritian barrister, said she had insisted with the Israeli government that the mission must include visiting Ramallah to meet with Palestinian representatives regarding allegations of sexual abuse by Israeli prison authorities against Palestinian detainees.

The team held 33 meetings with Israeli representatives, examining more than 5,000 photographic images and 50 hours of video footage, and conducted 34 confidential interviews including with survivors and witnesses of the 7 October attacks, released hostages and emergency responders.

The report noted difficulties in verifying several alleged incidents of sexual violence. One instance related to assaults at the Be'eri kibbutz, where over 10 percent of residents died - a claim which was widely repeated in international media.

"At least two allegations of sexual violence widely repeated in the media were unfounded due to either new superseding information or inconsistency in the facts gathered," the report said.

The team also encountered challenges with some testimonies including where statements were retracted, or sources doubted their recollections or previous assertions that had appeared in the media.

However, the experts did note a pattern in the treatment of female victims, who were often found fully or partially naked, bound, and shot dead.

"Although circumstantial, such a pattern of undressing and restraining of victims may be indicative of some forms of sexual violence," the report said.

The UN mission also visited the site of the Nova music festival, a few kilometres away from the Gaza border, where 3,500 young Israeli men and women were partying when the Hamas attack broke out.

The report found that "there are reasonable grounds to believe that multiple incidents of sexual violence took place with victims being subjected to rape and/or gang rape and then killed or killed while being raped".

Since October, many of the rape and sexual assault allegations against Hamas were first shared by Israeli sources online and by Hebrew media, and public figures and women’s rights groups had accused the UN of ignoring evidence of sexual violence against Israeli women and girls.

On November 12, Israel's official X account shared an image of a piece of paper with a list of Arabic phrases which they claimed was an Arabic-Hebrew transliteration glossary of sexual phrases that had been "discovered in Israel".

The account said the paper suggested that Hamas planned to "systematically rape Israeli women".

However, this accusation was singled out in the UN report and the team said it was not able to substantiate the claims.

It also noted that while it was possible that digital content may have since been removed if there were widespread orders to commit sexual violence, "it would have likely been discovered given the volume of the information posted online and further recirculated".

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Sexual violence against Palestinians in Israeli jails

Of the mission’s 17 days, Patten and her team spent two days in the occupied West Bank where they met Palestinian Authority officials, and civil society representatives, and interviewed four recently freed female detainees over concerns of sexual violence committed by Israeli security forces and settlers against Palestinians.

The envoys heard of instances of "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including increased instances of various forms of sexual violence" against men and women.

The report documented that Israeli security forces conducted invasive body searches, forced women to remove Hijabs, and repeated rape threats against women or female family members.

Other concerns raised included photographing women detainees, circulating the pictures, and depriving women of period products.

The team raised these findings with the Israeli justice ministry who responded that no complaints of sexual violence by Israeli military members had been lodged and referred to the existing complaints protocol for prisoners.

Since 2001, out of 1,400 complaints filed to the justice ministry for alleged acts of torture, including sexual violence, only three criminal investigations were opened, with no indictments resulting, the report noted.