Israel and activists accuse U.N. of slow response to accounts of Hamas militants raping women

Israel accused the United Nations on Monday of moving too slowly to respond to accounts that Hamas carried out widespread sexual violence against women in its Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., said Hamas intentionally used rape and sexual violence as weapons of war in its assault on Israel.

“This was premeditated. This was planned. This was instructed,” Erdan said at a U.N. panel organized by Israel to present what it said was evidence of the alleged crimes.

Image: Demonstrators gather during a protest outside of United Nations headquarters
Demonstrators gather Monday at a protest outside U.N. headquarters in New York.Charly Triballeau / AFP – Getty Images

“Sadly, the very international bodies that are supposedly the defenders of all women showed that when it comes to Israelis, indifference is acceptable,” Erdan said.

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Israeli authorities say they have collected extensive testimonies of rape and sex crimes from witnesses and first responders who were present during or after the atrocities took place, including accounts of mutilation and torture. Israeli police also cite images allegedly taken by Hamas militants showing the state of their female victims.

“A survivor from the Nova rave party testified, ‘Everything was an apocalypse of corpses, girls without any clothes on, without tops, without underwear, people cut in half, butchered, some were beheaded,’” Yael Reichert, a chief superintendent with the Israeli national police, said at the U.N. meeting. Reichert is taking part in the Israeli government’s probe into sex crimes carried out in the Oct. 7 attack.

Shari Mendes, a member of an Israeli reserve unit preparing deceased female troops for burial, said there seemed to be “a systematic genital mutilation of a group of victims.”

Hamas has denied its militants committed sexual crimes against women.

Sheryl Sandberg, the former chief operating officer of Facebook’s parent company, Meta Platforms, also spoke on the panel. She said women’s bodies that tell the stories of sexual violence should be believed over Hamas. “The world has to decide who to believe. Do we believe the Hamas spokesperson who said that rape is forbidden, therefore it couldn’t have possibly happened on Oct. 7? Or do we believe the women? Whose bodies tell us how they spent the last minutes of their lives.”

Two Israeli investigators who asked not to be named cautioned against the use of precise numbers of rape victims at this stage. They told NBC News that evidence continues to come in and that the investigation is likely to go on for months.

‘Weaponized sexual violence’

About 150 activists, including those from Jewish women’s groups, also marched in front of U.N. headquarters Monday, with speakers accusing the U.N. of failing to act over the abuse of Israeli women by Hamas.

Speaking at the rally, Cochav Elkayam Levy, of the Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the “deafening silence” from international institutions over the reports of sexual violence raised the question of whether Israeli women were protected by international law.

“When the institutions that are globally mandated to protect women stay silent — not only international law loses meaning; humanity’s shared values lose meaning,” Levy said.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took part remotely at the U.N. panel, saying: “We must respond to weaponized sexual violence wherever it happens.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said at the panel that the U.N. needed to condemn the “barbaric acts” Hamas perpetrated against women.

“The United Nations must denounce Hamas as a terrorist organization that uses rape as a weapon of war. The United Nations must live up to its purpose of upholding the principles of international law, and the United Nations must condemn these evil crimes against humanity,” she said.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said last week that “there are also numerous accounts of sexual violence during the attacks that must be vigorously investigated and prosecuted.”

But Israeli officials say that Guterres should have spoken out weeks earlier and that U.N. Women, a U.N. organization focused on gender equality and the empowerment of women, has failed to live up to its mission.

U.N. Women said last week that it “unequivocally” condemned the Hamas attack and that it was “alarmed by the numerous accounts of gender-based atrocities and sexual violence during those attacks.”

“This is why we have called for all accounts of gender-based violence to be duly investigated and prosecuted, with the rights of the victim at the core,” the group said.

The chair of a U.N. commission of inquiry investigating war crimes in the Israel-Hamas war has said it will focus on sexual violence by Hamas in the Oct. 7 attacks and will pass along any evidence to the International Criminal Court.

So far, Israel has not cooperated with the commission, saying it has an anti-Israel bias.

Asked about accusations that the U.N. has responded slowly to reports of rape, State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said, “I don’t have any specific comment, other than to say we would urge those reports to be fully and credibly investigated.”