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Evidence points to systematic use of rape and sexual violence by Hamas in 7 October attacks | Israel-Gaza war

In videos from 7 October, the body of a young woman is lying face down in the back of a pickup truck, stripped to her underwear, one leg bent at an unnatural angle. One of the men sitting next to her pulls her long hair as armed men around him shout praises to God.

Footage of the lifeless corpse of Shani Louk, a 22-year-old Israeli-German national, paraded around the streets of Gaza was some of the first to surface on 7 October, as the scale of the horror visited on sleeping families in kibbutzim neighbouring the strip and people partying at a nearby rave started to become clear.

In the more than three months since the unprecedented attack by the Palestinian group Hamas, the atrocities the militants committed have been well documented. Israel is still grappling with the trauma: entire families burned alive, torture and mutilation, children and elderly people ripped from the arms of their loved ones, seized as hostages.

Emergency responders risked their lives in the fighting on 7 October and several days afterwards to rescue the wounded and retrieve the dead. The chaos meant there were significant failings in preserving evidence of gender-based violence and what is coming to be seen as the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war by Hamas.

Israel’s top police investigations unit, Lahav 433, is still poring over 50,000 pieces of visual evidence and 1,500 witness testimonies, and says it is unable to put a number on how many women and girls suffered gender-based violence.

By cross-referencing testimonies given to police, published interviews with witnesses, and photo and video footage taken by survivors and first responders, the Guardian is aware of at least six sexual assaults for which multiple corroborating pieces of evidence exist. Two of those victims, who were murdered, were aged under 18.

At least seven women who were killed were also raped in the attack, according to Prof Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, a legal scholar and international women’s rights advocate, from her examination of evidence so far. The New York Times and NBC have both identified more than 30 killed women and girls whose bodies bear signs of abuse, such as bloodied genitals and missing clothes, and according to the Israeli welfare ministry, five women and one man have come forward seeking help for sexual abuse over the past few months.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, overwhelmed by the sheer number of victims, and the burned or disfigured state of some of the bodies, morgues were preoccupied with identification and did not have the time or capacity to test for sexual assault using rape kits, said the police spokesperson Mirit Ben Mayor. Lack of trained personnel was also a problem: according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, there are only seven forensic pathologists in the entire country.

Zaka, Israel’s emergency response organisation, usually works in cooperation with police at the scenes of terrorist attacks so the authorities can gather evidence before Zaka removes the bodies. Many have said since the attack that they wished they had realised at the time that, although they were trying to treat the dead with respect, they were also contaminating crime scenes. Most Zaka workers are conservative ultra-Orthodox men: several have said that they “didn’t think of rape at all”.

The victims’ bodies were also released as quickly as possible from morgues to their families for the swift burial required by Jewish tradition, and crucial evidence buried with them.

Some posthumous forensic examination is still possible, but it is unlikely that the full extent of the gender-based violence committed on 7 October will ever be known.

The Guardian spoke to a Zaka volunteer, Simcha Greeneman, who said in one kibbutz he had come across a woman who was naked from the waist down, bent over a bed and shot in the back of the head. In another house, he discovered a dead woman with sharp objects in her vagina, including nails.

At the Shura military base in central Israel, where most of the dead were taken, the reservist Shari Mendes, who was tasked with washing the female bodies and preparing them for burial, told reporters: “We have seen women who have been raped, from the age of children through to the elderly.

“We were in such a state of shock … Many young women arrived in bloody shrouded rags with just their underwear, and the underwear was often very bloody. Our team commander saw several soldiers who were shot on the crotch, intimate parts, vagina or shot in the breasts,” she added.

The most detailed witness account of rape is from a young woman who attended the Supernova music festival, where more than 350 young people were killed. The witness, who was shot in the back, said she was hiding in vegetation just off route 232 when a large group of Hamas gunmen arrived, who between them raped and killed at least five women.

“They laid a woman down and I understood that he is raping her … They passed her on to another person,” she told police in a video reviewed by the Guardian. “And he cuts her breast, he throws it on the road and they are playing with it.”

One raped woman was “shredded to pieces” and another “stabbed repeatedly in the back while she was being raped”, the same witness said in an interview with the New York Times. The witness has provided police with photographs of her hiding place, and another survivor hiding in the same spot has testified that he saw at least one woman being raped.

One of the festival’s organisers, Rami Shmuel, who returned to the scene the day after the attack, has described finding the bodies of three young women “naked from the waist down, legs spread”.

“One had the face burnt,” he said. Another was “shot in the face” while the last had been “shot all over the lower part of her body”.

One woman who survived gang rape at the rave was being treated for severe mental and physical trauma, police said, and was in no condition to speak to investigators.

In addition to the gender-based violence committed on 7 October, there are worries for the safety of the women still in Hamas captivity in Gaza.

Renana Eitan, the head of psychiatry at the Ichilov Tel Aviv medical centre, previously told the Guardian that of the 14 freed hostages still under her care – including children – several had been subjected to or witnessed sexual abuse. The US state department has said that the week-long truce between Israel and Hamas in November broke down because the militants refused to release the remaining women in its custody, over fears they would speak publicly about sexual violence.

Orit Sulitzeanu, the director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, said: “Everyone is looking for that golden piece of evidence, a woman survivor who testifies publicly about what happened to her. But think about it: someone suffering with that kind of trauma, why would they put themselves through that? Sexual violence is underreported everywhere. This is no different.

“I don’t think it is currently in the survivors’ best interests to go to the police, and I think the investigations into all the atrocities are going to take a very long time.”

Rape and sexual assault are considered war crimes and a breach of international humanitarian law. Hamas has denied the accusations of sexual violence.

On Monday, UN-appointed independent experts said that “given the number of victims and the extensive premeditation and planning of the attacks”, mounting evidence of rapes and genital mutilation pointed to possible crimes against humanity.

Israeli intelligence officials, experts and sources with direct knowledge of interrogation reports of captured Hamas fighters believe units that attacked were beforehand given a text that drew on a controversial and contested interpretation of traditional Islamic military jurisprudence, claiming that captives were “the spoils of war”. This potentially legitimised the abduction of civilians and other abuses, without being an explicit instruction to do so.

In at least two unsourced videos of interrogations of alleged Hamas members, which Israeli officials say they did not authorise for release, the men are heard talking about instructions given to rape women.

Linking suspects in custody to specific crimes was likely to be very difficult, Halperin-Kaddari said, although Israel intends to open criminal proceedings as soon as possible.

Individual victims will be able to file complaints amounting to crimes against humanity charges against Hamas at the international criminal court in The Hague, and the court is also expected to open a specific investigation into sexual violence on 7 October.

Halperin-Kaddari said: “An international investigation has more potential because the level of evidence is not as high as that in criminal proceedings, where you have to have a specific individual and specific victim and prove what happened beyond all reasonable doubt.

“To prosecute the overall scope of the atrocities and the degree of cruelty … We have enough for that already.”

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