Erasing the Victims

Content warning: this story contains vivid accounts of violence and sexual assault that might be triggering for readers.

The so-called “fog of war” is an element of all conflicts. Lack of clarity, lack of time to vet what’s real and what isn’t and the space between. Initial reports of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that precipitated the current war were harrowing, as were some scenes shown on global mainstream news networks — CNN, MSNBC and ABC. But among the verifiable and vetted stories were tales repeated again and again on social media in the early days, by some reporters and even by President Biden that were both horrifying and untrue of dozens of beheaded infants at Kfar Aza. Many journalists, myself included, tweeted out the report generated from a lone site in Israel that then morphed into headlines throughout London newspapers and American news sites.

It’s difficult to envision a worse story than babies beheaded like the biblical tale of Herod and the first born sons of the Israelites. But then that story was debunked by the Netanyahu government and noted journalists on the ground, like CNN’s Sara Sidner and eventually the White House itself were forced to walk it back. In its wake lay a seed of skepticism that has overshadowed the very real atrocities that took place that day in the kibbutzim near the Gaza border and at the Nova Light music festival that PGN has previously reported on.

Among those atrocities are myriad war crimes. Those crimes include some families, including children, being burned alive — their homes set on fire as they were trapped in safe rooms, unable to escape. Another reveal has been the breadth of sexual assaults perpetrated against women and girls at both the music festival where hundreds were killed and in the kibbutz enclaves.

That it has taken nearly two months for such stories to be reported in part devolves from that early debunked story, but also from the shift in focus of reporting on the war and attention to pro-Palestinian protests, which have largely castigated Israel for the war in Gaza. Israeli and other victims of the Oct. 7 attack have receded into the background as the shocking assault on Gaza has become the main news story with nearly 20,000 Palestinians killed in less than two months, more than half of them children. As CNN, MSNBC, ABC and Times of Israel reported Dec. 5, the IDF acknowledged that for every Hamas fighter killed by IDF strikes, two civilians have also been killed. 

The enormity of the horror in Gaza where videos of children being injured and maimed in real time are a daily component of reporting from the region has pushed Israeli victims to the background — among them the rape victims of Oct. 7. Stories of widespread sexual assault surfaced immediately after Oct. 7, but received little news coverage as those viral stories of beheaded babies became a focal point. 

Only now, after human rights groups from UN Women to Amnesty International have failed to respond to these Israeli victims, prompting a hashtag on Twitter/X —  #MeTooUnlessUrAJew — has any reporting begun to appear in either local Israeli news or international coverage. UN Women finally issued a statement last week calling for all accounts of gender-based violence that occurred on Oct. 7 to be investigated and prosecuted. 

Yet why is that? Videos of women and girls being abducted by terrorists Oct. 7 were shown on every news network. And among the 150 or so hostages still in Gaza, held by either Hamas or splinter groups, are young women who have yet to be offered in trade for Palestinians detained in Israel. Yet the silence surrounding these victims has persisted, even from Israeli media itself until recently.

Officials for Hamas say that the sexual violence and rape being reported were not committed by Hamas fighters, but by other armed jihadist groups that entered Israel after Hamas fighters began the attack on Oct. 7. 

Now witness testimony as well as documentary evidence of killings, sexual mutilations and rapes — including videos posted by Hamas fighters themselves — refute Hamas’s claims and support the allegations that Hamas did indeed perpetrate these war crimes against women and girls.

BBC News reported Dec. 5 that “BBC has seen and heard evidence of rape, sexual violence and mutilation of women during the 7 October Hamas attacks” and “videos of naked and bloodied women filmed by Hamas on the day of the attack, and photographs of bodies taken at the sites afterwards, suggest that women were sexually targeted by their attackers.”

On Monday, a conference was held at the United Nations headquarters in New York — “Hear our Voices: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in the October 7 Hamas Terror Attack” — to address these long-ignored victims. Among the headliners were former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has long been an advocate for sexual assault victims and former COO of Meta, Sheryl Sandberg. The women issued a global call to action to denounce sexual violence at the UN Summit, condemning the violence. Witness testimony from Israeli women was also part of the summit.

“As a global community, we must respond to weaponized sexual violence, whereever it happens, with absolute condemnation,” Hillary Rodham Clinton said in videotaped remarks after she spent Monday at the COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai. “There can be no justifications and no excuses. Rape as a weapon of war is a crime against humanity.”

Sandberg said, “Silence is complicity, and in the face of terror, we will not be quiet. That is why we are all here today. To speak about unspeakable acts.”

And those acts, as detailed by Gillibrand, who has seen video and by witnesses themselves were indeed unspeakable. Gillibrand said, “One of the earliest images that we have been able to see during the attack was that of Naama Levy. She was being dragged by her hair, her hands tied behind her back, thrown into a truck, blood streaming down her face, streaming down her arms, streaming down her back. Her sweatpants were covered in blood, streaming down her legs, clearly a victim of sexual assault. She was in terror.” 

The senator continued, “We have seen photos of bodies of all ages with unspeakable injuries. We’ve heard testimony of young girls being killed with their pants pulled down and naked, alone, afraid, and in terror. The mountain of evidence — forensic examinations, eyewitness testimonies from survivors and paramedics, video footage from Hamas itself, the words of Hamas declaring victory about the ten people that he killed to his mother, recorded on his cell phone. It embodies a level of evil we don’t see. It’s hard to hear. It’s hard to witness.”

Yael Richert, a chief superintendent with the Israeli national police, quoted a survivor of the Nova attack. Richert said, “Everything was an apocalypse of corpses. Girls without any clothes on. Without tops. Without underwear. People cut in half. Butchered. Some were beheaded. There were girls with a broken pelvis due to repetitive rapes. Their legs were spread wide apart, in a split.”

Shari Mendes, an architect and army reservist who helped identify and prepare female corpses for burial as part of the Israel Defense Forces morgue staff, describing what she saw: “Many young women arrived in bloody shredded rags or just in underwear, and their underwear was often very bloody. Our team commander saw several female soldiers who were shot in the crotch, intimate parts, vagina, or shot in the breasts. There seemed to be systematic genital mutilation of a group of victims.”

Yifat Bitton, an Israeli law professor, noted that the victims had been “silenced twice” — first by Hamas on Oct. 7, and then “by the silence of the very UN organizations that were entrusted with the mandate of protecting them.”

The New York Times reported that Meni Binyamin, the head of the International Crime Investigations Unit of the Israeli police, said that “dozens” of women and some men were raped by Hamas militants on Oct. 7.

“We are investigating sexual crimes against both women and men perpetrated by Hamas terrorists,” Binyamin said in an interview with The New York Times. “There were violent rape incidents, the most extreme sexual abuses we have seen, of both women and men. I am talking about dozens.”

Binyamin added, “This is an ongoing investigation, I cannot get into details,” but told The Times that “a team of investigators had gathered ‘tens of thousands’ of testimonies from survivors and witnesses of the attack, as well as from soldiers and emergency medical workers.”

Autopsies, forensic evidence and confessions from captured Hamas fighters also corroborate that sexual crimes were committed, Binyamin told The Times.

Other graphic testimony was reported by The Times, BBC and The Associated Press. But the larger question of why these victims have been erased has yet to be answered. And like so many questions surrounding the handling of the Oct. 7 attack, the ignoring of intel prior to the attack, and the catastrophic nature of the war in Gaza all come back to the Netanyahu government and what it has chosen to reveal and what it has kept hidden. 

That the veracity of these accounts has been questioned so broadly and that even U.S. congresswomen like Rep. Pramila Jayapal have dismissed these brutal war crimes should be of global concern as the women speakers at the summit suggest.

Gillibrand said, “Rape has been used as a weapon of war for centuries — a deliberate form of torture that serves to dehumanize and terrorize not just the women, but the entire community.” 

The trauma experienced by the victims and survivors has been ignored for too long with concerns that Jewish women victims and survivors and the crimes against them ignored or worse, dismissed and disbelieved by those asserting it’s an invented narrative to deflect from “genocide in Gaza.” 

It’s past time the breadth of these assaults were revealed and the perpetrators held accountable, if not in the courts, then at least in the court of public scrutiny. As one speaker at the summit said, “Silence equals violence.” These victims matter — erasing them is another crime against them and against the memories of those who did not survive.

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