‘Horrific things I saw with my own eyes’: UN criticised as hearing told of Hamas sexual violence

Gender-based atrocities committed on October 7th have received little scrutiny from human rights groups or the news media, UN told

The body of one woman had “nails and different objects in her female organs”. In another house, a person’s genitals were so mutilated that “we couldn’t identify if it was a man or a woman”.

Simcha Greinman, a volunteer who helped collect the remains of victims of the Hamas-led October 7th assault on Israel, took long pauses as he spoke those words on Monday at an event at the United Nations.

“Horrific things I saw with my own eyes,” he said, “and I felt with my own hands.”

Shari Mendes, a member of an Israeli military reserve unit tasked with preparing the bodies of fallen female soldiers for burial, said her team saw several who were killed on October 7th “who were shot in the crotch, intimate parts, vagina, or were shot in the breast”. Others had mutilated faces, or multiple gunshots to their heads.


Since the October 7th attack, during which more than 1,200 people were killed, according to Israel, and some 240 people kidnapped, Israeli officials have accused the terrorists of also committing widespread sexual violence – rape and sexual mutilation – particularly against women.

Yet those atrocities have received little scrutiny from human rights groups, or the news media, amid the larger war between Israel and Hamas – and until a few days ago, they had not been specifically mentioned or condemned by UN Women, the United Nations’ women’s rights agency, which has regularly spoken out about the plight of Palestinian women and girls.

Israelis and many Jews around the world say they feel abandoned by an international social justice community – women’s groups, human rights groups, liberal celebrities, among others – whose causes they have supported in crises around the world.

On Monday, some 800 people, including women’s activists and diplomats representing about 40 countries, crowded into a chamber at UN headquarters in New York for a presentation laying out the evidence of large-scale sexual violence, with testimony from witnesses such as Mendes and Greinman.

“Silence is complicity,” Sheryl Sandberg, the former Meta executive, told those assembled. She, along with Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, was among the event’s primary organisers. “On October 7th, Hamas brutally murdered 1,200 souls and in some cases, they first raped their victims,” Sandberg added. “We know this from eyewitnesses, we know this from combat paramedics, we would know this from some victims if more had been allowed to live.”

Hamas has denied that its fighters committed sex crimes, which it said would violate Islamic principles.

But ample evidence has been collected, like the bodies of women found partially or fully naked, women with their pelvic bones broken, the accounts of medical examiners and first responders, videos taken by Hamas fighters themselves, and even a few firsthand witnesses like a woman, in a video made public last month by police officials, who said she had watched Hamas terrorists take turns raping a young woman they had captured at a music festival, mutilate her and then shoot her in the head.

Meni Binyamin, the head of the International Crime Investigations Unit of the Israeli police, said in an interview that it had documented “violent rape incidents, the most extreme sexual abuses we have seen”, on October 7th, against women and some men. “I am talking about dozens.”

Israeli officials have not estimated how many women were sexually assaulted or mutilated. They say that overwhelmed forensic scientists had to focus at first on identifying bodies, rather than collecting perishable evidence of rape. Few victims or eyewitnesses survived, and fewer have spoken publicly.

At the United Nations on Monday, Yael Richert, a superintendent with the Israeli police, presented video of witness interviews, including with a paramedic who said, “Shooting was targeted at sexual organs, we saw that a lot.”

Outside, hundreds of protesters accused the United Nations of a double standard when it comes to sexual violence; some chanted, “Me too, unless you are a Jew.”

The United Nations, and UN Women in particular, have become a primary focus – though hardly the only one – of mounting anger for their silence. Secretary general António Guterres immediately condemned the Hamas massacre, but not until late November did he issue a statement that the related sex crimes specifically must be “vigorously investigated and prosecuted”.

Dr Cochav Elkayam Levy, an Israeli law professor and founder of a commission on October 7th crimes against women and children, said that on November 1st, she sent a letter to UN Women, signed by dozens of scholars, calling for an “urgent and unequivocal condemnation of the massacre committed by Hamas”, including the use of rape as a tool of war. “They didn’t even respond,” she said.

Erdan, the Israeli ambassador, said he sent two letters about the use of rape by Hamas militants, appended with photographs of victims’ bodies, to Sima Sami Bahous, the executive director of UN Women. “I got no response whatsoever,” said Erdan, “not even, ‘We received your letter’”.

On November 25th, UN Women first addressed the issue on social media, saying it was “alarmed by reports of gender-based violence on October 7th”, but the post did not mention Hamas.

In a statement on Monday, UN Women condemned “the abhorrent attacks by Hamas against Israel” and said it had been “closely following reports of brutal acts of gender-based violence against women in Israel since they first came to light”.

The agency added, “We believe a full investigation is essential, so that perpetrators at all sides can be held accountable and justice can be served.”

Last week, a bipartisan group of more than 80 members of Congress released a letter calling the agency’s response “woefully unsatisfactory and consistent with the UN’s long-standing bias against Israel”.

Since the start of the war, UN Women has focused its advocacy on bringing attention and humanitarian relief to girls and women in the Gaza Strip, and on pushing for a ceasefire as Israeli airstrikes resulted in thousands of Palestinian casualties.

Several supporters of Israel in the US Congress expressed outrage at the silence from international and domestic organisations.

“I’ve been internally raging for about two months,” said Lois Frankel of Florida, a member of the House of Representatives who heads the Democratic Women’s Caucus. “There is anti-Semitism involved and there are some folks who are more interested in portraying the loss of life in Gaza than highlighting the complete inhumanity and viciousness and brutality of Hamas.”

Frankel plans to introduce a House resolution later this week condemning the use of sexual violence in war and has been pushing for congressional hearings on the topic.

Democratic senator Jacky Rosen, of Nevada criticised UN Women for its “failure to immediately and unequivocally stand up for Israeli women”. She said international organisations “including several on the far left, have chosen to dismiss, downplay or outright deny Hamas’s widespread use of sexual violence and rape against Israeli women on October 7th”.

At the United Nations on Monday, Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York gave an emotional address, speaking of “raw footage” she had been shown that “takes your breath away with the sheer level of evil it depicts”.

“When I saw the list of women’s rights organisations that said nothing, I nearly choked,” Gillibrand said. “Where is the solidarity for women in this country and in this world to stand up for our mothers, our sisters and our daughters?”

After the event, in the UN’s Flag Hall, Sandberg stood in front of Israel’s white and blue banner, and as she talked about the devastating realization that most of the victims had been killed, her voice began to crack.

“I don’t know how to talk about this and not,” – she paused, taking a deep breath before apologising. She never finished her sentence. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times