Israel investigates an elusive, horrific enemy: Rape as a weapon of war

A volunteer with Israel's military rabbinate who helped prepare remains of women killed by fighters from Gaza on Oct. 7 stands near refrigerated containers that hold bodies, body parts and ashes at a makeshift morgue for soldiers on the Shura military base near Ramla on Oct. 29. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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Warning: The following report includes graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

TEL AVIV — The first indications of possible sexual violence came as early as Oct. 7, the day that thousands of Hamas and other fighters streamed into Israeli towns and began live-streaming bloodshed and torture.

Footage showed several women stripped of their clothing. One video showed a woman, her hands zip-tied behind her back, with blood on the crotch of her pants.

Later came testimony from witnesses and first responders. One witness described in graphic detail a gang rape at the Nova rave site near Re’im. An Israeli reserve combat paramedic told The Post that he found the bodies of teenage girls with signs of sexual assault.

Combatants from Gaza overran 22 Israeli communities, killed at least 1,200 and took 240 hostage in the surprise attack. But their greater goal, sexual trauma specialists say, was to introduce terror against women — and children and other unarmed civilians — as a means of spreading fear.

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“The torture of women was weaponized to destroy communities, to destroy a people, to destroy a nation,” said Cochav Elkayam Levy, the head of a nongovernmental commission investigating crimes perpetrated against women and children on Oct. 7.

Hamas denies that its fighters use rape or assault against women as a weapon of war. To do so, Hamas official Basem Naim said, would go against its founding Islamic principles. The group, he said, considers “any sexual relationship or activity outside of marriage to be completely haram” — forbidden by Islam.

“Whoever does this kind of act is committing a major infraction and would be punished both legally and on Judgment Day,” he told The Washington Post. “So our soldiers would not go close to this forbidden” act.

Earlier this month, Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau based in Qatar, also said in an interview with the BBC that “women, children and civilians were exempt” from Hamas’s attacks — despite a death toll that was made up mostly of those groups.

The Israeli commission, established by Elkayam-Levy, is working to compile a comprehensive database of the assault that day, based on the testimonies of survivors, witnesses, medical examiners, first responders, police and militants themselves, many of whom participated first from behind the camera, as they recorded their actions, and later in front of the camera, as they were interrogated by Israeli security forces.

That’s in addition to the investigation by Israel’s police in coordination with the military and Shin Beit, the internal security service. The agencies have been building a case on charges of mass murder, rape, torture and bodily mutilation.

Authorities invited journalists this month to view a video compilation that drew from at least 60,000 clips and more than 1,000 witness statements.

“There was humiliation through rape on the morning of Oct. 7,” Israeli Police Chief Kobi Shabtai said.

“There was worse evidence that we were not able to show,” he said. “They cut limbs and genitals, they raped, they abused corpses. There were sadistic sexual acts.” It’s unclear whether authorities have accounts directly from rape survivors.

Israel has experience and training in mass casualty events, but never before on the scale of Oct. 7, the bloodiest day in the country’s history.

Israel is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Israeli authorities have not said whether they intend to prosecute Hamas militants for war crimes. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly condemned ICC investigations of war crimes allegedly perpetrated by Israeli and Palestinian forces in the occupied Palestinian territories.