© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view shows a destroyed home riddled with bullets, following the deadly October 7 attack by Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, southern Israel November 2, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
By Emma Farge
GENEVA (Reuters) – Israel held a meeting at the U.N. in Geneva late on Monday to raise awareness of sexual violence against women perpetrated during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks amid criticism that the global body has kept quiet about the issue.
Israeli authorities have opened an investigation into sexual violence during the most deadly attack on Israel in its history, including rape, after evidence emerged pointing to sexual crimes, such as victims found disrobed and mutilated.
Hamas denies the abuses.
The U.N. human rights office said it has condemned the Oct. 7 attacks as “heinous, brutal and shocking” and that Israel has so far not granted its monitors access to the country.
The private event, attended by diplomats, rights groups and U.N. agencies, is the first Israel-organised event outside the country to address acts of sexual violence by Hamas, which Israel’s diplomatic mission described as “widespread”.
U.N. rights bodies “downplayed” and “minimised” the sexual violence, said Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, an Associate Professor at the Bar-Ilan University, who spoke at the event.
“We expected a clear and loud statement that says that there is no justification for using the bodies of women as a weapon of war. None of this came up until now,” she told Reuters on the sidelines. Asked to explain, she said: “It turns around the conventional framing of viewing Israel as the aggressor, and Palestinians as the ultimate victim.”
Halperin-Kaddari, formerly Vice-President at the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), is meeting U.N. Human Rights chief Volker Turk on Tuesday to convey this message, supply him with new evidence and request a strong condemnation of the attacks, she said.
A U.N. rights office spokesperson said Turk’s office had requested access to Israel to monitor and collect information on the Oct. 7 attacks but had not received a response from Israel.
“The Office is attempting to carry out remote monitoring of these and other human rights violations reported in Israel and the OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territories). Lack of direct access to Israel and the OPT has hampered the work,” said Ravina Shamdasani in response to emailed questions.
“We have repeatedly stressed the need for rigorous investigations and accountability for all serious breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law, irrespective of the identity of the alleged perpetrators,” she added.
Evidence about sexual violence includes testimonies by first responders at the sites of the attacks as well as military reservists who tended to the bodies in the identification process. Reuters has seen photos corroborating some of those accounts.
Halperin-Kaddari said she has been given access to some evidence and testimonies by Israeli authorities in order to “raise awareness and demand condemnation and accountability”.
She described meeting a paramedic who tended to a woman after the Oct. 7 music festival who was bleeding heavily after being raped by four attackers.
Halperin-Kaddari said she would also like to see independent bodies investigate the crimes.
One body that rights experts say could investigate is an independent commission of inquiry set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council, but Israel does not cooperate with it, alleging bias. Turk’s office also called for Israeli authorities to cooperate with this inquiry.