WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone who has.
After more than two decades of working with survivors of sexual violence, Orit Sulitzeanu knows the evidence most sought by investigators as they probe the atrocities that took place during Hamas’s October invasion of Israel is probably one they’ll never get.
“This is the golden proof: the woman who will come forward…and say, ‘Yes, this happened to me,'” said Sulitzeanu, executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel.
“No one will dare say: ‘I was raped by a Hamas terrorist.’ “
Israeli police and the United Nations are investigating widespread reports of brutal sexual violence during the Hamas-led invasion of Israel on October 7.
Even under normal circumstances, investigating sexual violence can be difficult because victims may be reluctant to speak to authorities. This particular case is further complicated by the fact that the October 7 attack sparked the deadliest fighting between the groups in decades and authorities believe many of the victims were ultimately killed.
Experts, including Sulitzeanu, say investigating these reports will likely take years or longer, and that justice could be different than people might imagine.
Sulitzeanu says she began hearing reports of rape, disfigurement and sexual abuse of women and men in the days after October 7.
The group Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, which has long advocated for the health of residents of the occupied Palestinian territories, released a report in November on sexual violence based on publicly available photos, videos and other online information, as well as its own interviews with eyewitnesses, soldiers and first responders.
The report documented such incidents at the Nova music festival near Israel’s southern border, in homes around the Gaza Strip and at an Israeli military base.
“What we know for sure is that it was more than one case and it was very widespread, in the sense that it happened in multiple places and on multiple occasions,” he said. said Hadas Ziv, the organization’s director of policy and ethics. The Canadian Press.
“What we don’t know and what the police are investigating is whether this was ordered and whether it was systematic.”
UN experts call for accountability
Two experts appointed by the United Nations have demanded accountability for this violence.
Alice Jill Edwards and Morris Tidball-Binz – the agency’s special rapporteurs on torture – said in a statement that any sexual violence “would constitute flagrant violations of international law, amounting to war crimes.”
They said the attacks “could also be characterized” as crimes against humanity “given the number of victims and the extensive premeditation and planning of the attacks.”
“The growing body of evidence regarding reported sexual violence is particularly poignant,” Edwards and Tidball-Binz said in the release.
“Every victim deserves to be recognized, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender, and our role is to be their voice.”
The Israeli government presented evidence to the United Nations in December of rape and mutilation committed by Hamas militants on October 7.
About 1,200 people were killed in the attack that day, according to the Israeli government. The country then declared war on Hamas, responding with attacks that killed 25,295 Palestinians and injured 63,000 others as of January 22, according to Palestinian health officials.
An Israeli police commissioner who testified before the UN shared eyewitness accounts, including one who told police he saw girls left with broken pelvises after being repeatedly raped. A volunteer medical worker sent to collect bodies and remains told the UN she saw a woman with nails and different objects in her reproductive organs.
“His body was brutalized in such a way that we cannot identify him, from head to toe,” said Simcha Greinman, a volunteer with ZAKA, an Israeli search and rescue organization, during a conference at UN headquarters in New York.
Hamas has denied accusations of sexual abuse.
Investigations more complex in war, experts say
Investigating sexual and gender-based violence in wartime is more complex than in peacetime for a multitude of reasons, experts say.
One of the complicating factors is the sheer volume. Police, pathologists, coroners and other officials charged with responding to crimes might be called upon to investigate just a handful of reports of sexual violence in a year. After October 7, these officials found themselves handling hundreds of cases in a single day.
“Even if you are a developed and well-equipped country, it is very difficult to carry out investigations when you are faced with violence of this magnitude,” said Iva Vukušić, a assistant professor of international history at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. She previously spent three years in Sarajevo, where she worked as a researcher and analyst in the Special Department for War Crimes of the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“The system is simply struggling to keep up.”
International investigations may not even begin until personnel are safe to enter the country, Vukušić said. Once they arrived, she said, it would not be unusual to have little physical evidence given the chaos of war.
Volunteers collecting bodies for burial in Israel described working as fast as they could while being shot at. They said that left them no time to gather physical evidence or photographs to prove what they already believed was evident from the condition of the bodies.
Israeli police say they did not focus on studying crime scenes, requesting autopsies or collecting semen samples from women’s bodies after October 7 chaos . identifying and burying remains rather than gathering evidence for criminal prosecution.
Vukušić Suspect investigators will look for patterns between the cases, which could help determine whether there was an order or policy behind the violence.
“It’s certainly a process that will take at least two to three to 10 years,” she said.
Justice will differ from person to person, expert says
In Israel, international law professor Cochav Elkayam-Levy heads the so-called Civilian Commission on Hamas’ Crimes Against Women and Children of October 7, which documents incidents of sexual violence.
The commission aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of gender-based violence committed by Hamas, instead of focusing on forensic documentation of individual cases.
He claims to have collected testimonies of sexual assaults against Israeli women and photographic evidence of men being sexually tortured.
Justice will look different from person to person, said Vukušić, whose research focuses on mass violence and transitional justice, particularly criminal accountability.
Some people will want recognition of the harm caused, an opportunity to tell their story in court or long prison sentences for those responsible, she said. Others may want to be left alone so they can try to move on.
Sulitzeanu, of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, says she personally hopes an investigation will reveal the truth about the abuse.
“It’s very important that people around the world understand that this happened,” she said.