What to know about the UN report on October 7 sexual violence

We now have one of the most definitive sources so far in the contentious discussion about militants from Gaza’s perpetration of sexual violence on October 7.

The UN’s office on sexual violence in conflict released a report Monday finding “reasonable grounds to believe” that militants from Gaza did perpetrate sexual violence during their attack on Israel that day, including rape or gang rape in at least three locations. The report also cautioned that significant further investigation would be necessary to establish how widespread such attacks were.

The 23-page report is based on the findings of a two-week mission of the UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (SRSG-SVC). It comes amid a highly contentious dispute about the prevalence of sexual violence on October 7, as well as a low point in the already-strained relationship between the UN and Israel.

Horrific reports of sexual violence — though never firsthand accounts, as some or all of the victims not taken into Gaza as hostages may have been killed during the attack — surfaced in the weeks following the attacks and Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza. Those stories included claims that militants cut off a woman’s breast and gang-raped her, among others. Israel and others condemned the UN for its perceived indifference toward the plight of the alleged victims, but at the same time, authorities have refused to give access to the proper UN bodies that could thoroughly investigate the alleged crimes.

Hamas has consistently denied that its fighters would commit sexual violence, and while it’s true that Hamas was not the only group that participated in the October 7 attacks — Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other militants also took part in the assault — the group’s denial doesn’t mean that some of its members didn’t commit sexual crimes that day. The UN report also found “convincing information” that some of the approximately 100 hostages still in Gaza have been subjected to sexual violence or sexualized torture by their captors.

First, a bit of important context about sexual violence in conflict

Sexual violence is unfortunately far too common in conflict — it is, after all, a form of violence. The study and understanding of what role it plays in war, as well as how it’s defined, documented, and prosecuted, is still fairly new and developing.

And investigating it is often extremely difficult, including in this case. In addition to the stigma in many communities around sex and sexual violence — including among those victimized — it can be difficult to collect evidence while conflict is ongoing, especially if the country or community where the violence occurs doesn’t have the right medical, psychological, and legal infrastructure to address the crimes and also support survivors.

Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) had not, however, been a feature of Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation, not even during the fairly violent Second Intifada. The novelty of this kind of violence in this context is part of what makes it so shocking and difficult to comprehend.

There is little doubt that some forms of sexualized violence against Israeli women happened on October 7, but as the UN report indicates, it’s impossible to tell at this point how widespread or systematic such violence was.

“It’s really important that it be investigated what precisely happened,” Jennie Burnet, director of the Institute for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University, told Vox. “Whether it was Hamas soldiers or militants taking their own initiatives, or whether it was planned and systematic, I think that is an important thing to uncover.”

How something so clearly horrific became a controversy

News coverage of the alleged sexual violence picked up in early December, following outcry from activists as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over perceived silence from the UN, women’s rights groups, and the media around reports of sexual violence.

The most prominent reporting about the alleged sexual violence appeared in the New York Times on December 28 of last year. The report, written by Jeffrey Gettleman, Anat Schwartz, and Adam Sella, details the story of “the woman in the black dress,” Gal Abdush, as an example of the sexual violence that Hamas and other Palestinian fighters allegedly committed.

The Times story noted that some members of her family “based on the way her body was found, … feared that she might have been raped.” Abdush’s corpse was “sprawled half-naked” about 9 miles from the site of the Nova rave she attended with her husband. But in January, the New York Times shelved an episode of its podcast The Daily, which was supposed to be based on the December story after both internal and external criticism of the reporting underpinning it, according to the Intercept. That criticism extended to the credentials of one of the reporters, Schwartz, who appears to have had little to no journalistic experience prior to reporting for the article and is the partner of Sella’s uncle.

The Intercept also disputed some of the other reporting in the Times that indicated that two teenage girls in Kibbutz Be’eri were victims of sexual violence, citing interviews with family members that contradict the Times’ interview with a paramedic from an Israeli Defense Forces commando unit. The UN team also investigated but could not confirm claims out of this kibbutz (though the Times clarified that reports out of this kibbutz that the UN said were “unfounded” were not those included in the Times’ previous reporting).

“It must be noted that witnesses and sources with whom the [SRSG-SVC] mission team engaged adopted over time an increasingly cautious and circumspect approach regarding past accounts, including in some cases retracting statements made previously,” the report states regarding its finding in Kibbutz Be’eri. ”Some also stated to the mission team that they no longer felt confident in their recollections of other assertions that had appeared in the media.”

Spokespeople from the Times have repeatedly stood by the organization’s reporting. However, the scrutiny of it has continued. In some ways, the debate has become a proxy for the broader public relations struggle between Israeli and Palestinian supporters.

It also illustrates two major themes: First, the investigation into October 7 is happening in a highly polarized environment, and second, CRSV is extremely challenging to document and investigate.

“My impression is that the debate over what happened [on October 7] is especially intense given the long-term occupation of the Occupied Territories by Israel and a rising global awareness over the plight of Palestinians, who are largely people without a state,” Burnet said. “I think this particular instance has come to light at a moment of intense polarization around the issue.”

What’s actually in the UN report

The UN team — composed of nine experts including an open-source and digital information analyst, as well as a forensic pathologist and two investigators trained in conducting safe and ethical interviews of survivors and witnesses of sexual and gender-based violence — was mandated to collect, analyze, and verify information about CRSV on October 7.

It will not be the UN’s final say in the matter: A full investigation into war crimes committed on both sides is under the mandate of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and Israel.

The SRSG-SVC mission conducted its visit from January 29 to February 14 of this year and found reasonable grounds to believe that rape and gang rape occurred at the Nova music festival and surrounding areas, Road 232, and Kibbutz Re’im. The mission also found a pattern of victims — primarily women — whose bodies were found partially or fully naked and bound. While that’s circumstantial evidence, it could point to sexual violence.

Based on its findings, the report establishes that there is “reasonable grounds to believe” that sexual violence occurred on October 7 and that captives in Gaza have been subjected to sexual violence, too.

The mission also visited Ramallah in the West Bank in response to reports of sexual violence and attacks against Palestinian people, particularly those held in detention, by Israeli security forces and settlers.

The UN report is based on reviewing evidence and conducting interviews in Israel over two weeks — which, as it notes, is not nearly sufficient time to conduct a full investigation into sexual violence on October 7, much less whether those crimes were premeditated, systemic, or directed by leadership.

Indeed, establishing a link between a crime or pattern of crimes in conflict and leadership directing those crimes can take years — that’s why they are so difficult to prosecute.

The UN report mentions the lack of forensic evidence, such as autopsies and in situ crime scene photos as part of the challenge of the investigation, although it did review many verified pieces of photo and video evidence from the sites where the team was able to investigate.

“The other thing that makes this [situation] particularly hard is that, with the rise in generative AI, it’s increasingly hard to verify photographic and video evidence, and audio evidence as untampered with and unmanipulated,” Burnet said. Though the authenticated open-source photo and video evidence that the team did view found no conclusive evidence of rape, some circumstantial evidence — like the positioning of bodies and state of dress — could indicate sexual violence.

The report detailed difficulties in collecting evidence, including the use of first responders lacking the necessary skills to identify and document evidence of sexual violence. Potential forensic evidence could have been removed or obscured due to the first responders’ religious beliefs around the dead, including Jewish tradition that mandates rapid burial.

While that does mean there likely is not DNA evidence of sexual violence, there is still important information to be gleaned from these investigations, Payal Shah, director of the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones at Physicians for Human Rights, told Vox.

“There’s often a misconception that sexual violence documentation has to occur within the first 72 hours to get DNA evidence,” she said. “But actually, in the context of conflict-related sexual violence, you’re often not looking to link to a specific perpetrator, right, but you’re actually looking at the pattern of how sexual violence has occurred in the pattern of harm.”

The UN report pushes back on some of the claims about more barbaric CRSV on October 7, notably a persistent rumor that a fetus was cut out of a pregnant woman and then stabbed.

Importantly, the report doesn’t include evidence gathered from Israeli intelligence services “including those related to interrogations of alleged perpetrators, despite some being offered, due to the mission team’s inability in the time allotted to establish the due process rights of the accused person and adequate authentication.” Israeli security services such as Shin Bet have used torture against detained Palestinians in the past, and the possibility that such tactics have elicited confessions of sexual violence calls into question the veracity of that evidence.

“The thing about torture is that if a interrogator does not know the answer, and is using violence, the interrogator will not know whether what is being said is true, or something that’s said just to make the pain stop,” Lisa Hajjar, a professor of the sociology of law and conflict at UC Santa Barbara, told Vox in January. “And so, that’s one sort of phenomenon, but in another sense, what is very common in torture in political conflicts, the state really has an interest in generating information that they can use for [its] purposes, whether that information is true or not.”

Additionally, the team wasn’t able to interview survivors of sexual violence, despite efforts to conduct those interviews and the capacity to do so. That could be due to the stigma and trauma that survivors feel. But there are still ways to collect useful information around patterns of violence, Shah said, like looking at anonymized samples of medical records and interviewing clinicians to establish patterns of violence.

As the SRSG-SVC report says, it’s clear that sexual violence did occur on October 7, and quite likely in the aftermath in Gaza. The report contains few hard-and-fast conclusions, because it will likely be years before we know what kinds of sexual violence and how widespread it was.

But that’s to the mission’s credit in a highly polarized context, when real horror and trauma has occurred, but is being caught up in politicized discourses. As our collective understanding of CRSV develops, it’s critical to have professional and ethical processes to establish what matters: the truth.

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