U.N. finds ‘clear and convincing’ information that hostages have been raped in Gaza

A senior United Nations official found “clear and convincing” information that hostages have been raped and sexually abused in Gaza and “reasonable grounds” to believe sexual violence, including rape and gang rape, occurred during the Oct. 7 terrorist attack led by Hamas.

“Based on the information it gathered, the mission team found clear and convincing information that sexual violence, including rape, sexualized torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment has been committed against hostages,” the U.N. said in a report, adding that it “has reasonable grounds to believe that such violence may be ongoing against those still held in captivity.”

Pramila Patten, the secretary-general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said in the 23-page report that she was unable to determine the exact scope of sexual violence that occurred Oct. 7. She concluded that finding the precise number of sexual assaults and identifying the perpetrators of such crimes would require a full-fledged investigation and “may take months or years to emerge.”

“In most of these incidents, victims first subjected to rape were then killed, and at least two incidents relate to the rape of women’s corpses,” the U.N. said in a news release Monday. 

The U.N. report said it has “reasonable grounds to believe” that at least five rapes occurred during the Oct. 7 attack, in which members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other armed groups also took part. Patten said her team heard credible accounts of at least two rapes of corpses at the Nova music festival and in the surrounding area, one rape outside a bomb shelter at the entrance to kibbutz Re’im and two on Road 232, which runs parallel to the Gaza Strip.

“Based on the examination of available information, including credible statements by eyewitnesses, there are reasonable grounds to believe that multiple incidents of rape, including gang rape, occurred in and around the Nova festival site during the 7 October attacks,” the report states. “Credible information was obtained regarding multiple incidents whereby victims were subjected to rape and then killed. There are further accounts of individuals who witnessed at least two incidents of rape of corpses of women.”

U.N. officials said the reported rape of a woman outside a bomb shelter at the entrance of kibbutz Re’im was corroborated by witness testimonies and digital material. Patten was unable to verify reports of sexual violence at kibbutz Be’eri, where Israeli officials say more than 100 people were killed.

More than 1,200 people died in the attack, according to Israeli officials. The subsequent Israeli offensive against Hamas has killed more 30,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry there. 

During her trip, Patten also visited the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet with Palestinian officials and former detainees regarding allegations of sexual violence by Israeli security forces and settlers. She said officials and four former detainees described threats of rape and other dehumanizing behavior toward Palestinian detainees, including forced nudity and invasive body searches. 

Israeli officials say they are investigating allegations of misconduct against Palestinians by Israeli security forces and settlers.

hamas terrorist attack civilians car auto
IDF-released bodycam video from Hamas from Oct. 7.IDF

As part of their work, Patten said, her team reviewed more than 5,000 photographs and about 50 hours of video related to the Oct. 7 attack.

In early December, NBC News reported that evidence, primarily from the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli officials, suggested that dozens of Israeli women were raped, sexually abused or mutilated during the Oct. 7 attack.

After the release of the U.N. report Monday, Israeli officials shared two dozen images and videos with NBC News that they said they had provided to the U.N. team. Some of the photos had been shared with NBC News previously. Some had not.

The photos and videos showed female bodies stripped of clothing, some with their hands tied behind their backs. Some showed what appeared to be dried blood in dead women’s genital areas.

Israeli officials said they told U.N. investigators that they believe that one photo shows that multiple nails were pushed inside a woman’s lower abdomen and genital area. Israeli officials said they believe another photo shows that a knife had been inserted in a woman’s vagina.

Patten said her forensics team could not verify that an object had been inserted into a body based on the photos, which Israeli first responders took as part of their efforts to try to identify bodies. 

NBC News was also shown the photos but could not independently confirm that nails or a knife had been inserted in the women’s bodies based solely on the images.

In the chaotic aftermath of the attack, Israeli reservists, volunteer first responders and morgue workers did not perform autopsies or use rape kits. They initially feared that Hamas fighters remained inside Israel. They were overwhelmed by the number of dead.

In some cases, the identification of bodies, particularly badly burned ones, took weeks or months. In addition, many families, after they received the bodies, tried to follow the Jewish tradition of burying the dead within 24 hours.  

Patten said the lack of forensic evidence collection posed a challenge to her team. Potential witnesses also feared social stigmatization.

The trip was not investigative in nature; instead, it was to gather, analyze and verify information for potential inclusion in the annual U.N. report on conflict-related sexual violence, she said.

Israeli officials invited Patten on Nov. 8, one month after the attack. She said she agreed to conduct the mission if she would be able to work freely and independently from Israeli authorities and meet with Palestinians in the West Bank. Given the ongoing military operations in Gaza, she did not attempt to enter the enclave, but she noted that other U.N. entities are operating there, including those that monitor conflict-related sexual violence.

After they arrived in Israel on Jan. 29, Patten and her team of experts spent 17 days meeting with representatives of 33 Israeli institutions and organizations. They also visited four locations where sexual violence reportedly occurred Oct. 7. 

The U.N team conducted 34 confidential interviews, some of them with witnesses of the Oct. 7 attack, first responders and two released hostages, according to the report.

Patten said her team did not interview any survivors of sexual violence. Israeli officials and relatives of the survivors say they are still receiving specialized trauma treatment.

Patten and one of her team leaders, Chloe Marnay-Baszanger, spoke to reporters at the U.N. following the release of the report Monday afternoon.

Asked by a reporter whether she was able to investigate freely, she said Israeli officials complied with her request to place no limits on her work.

“I was not chaperoned,” she said.