Everything about the bloody attack by Hamas on October 7 is still unknown. But a month and a half later, the word is beginning to open up about the sexual violence committed against Israeli women, including those present at the Tribe of Nova music festival, which has been targeted by the Islamist movement in the Negev desert.

The Israeli police announced on November 14 that they were opening an investigation into rapes and mutilations committed by Hamas men that day. "We have multiple witnesses in several cases," said David Katz, head of the cyber section of the Lahav 433 criminal police unit, nicknamed "the Israeli FBI", quoted by AFP.

Testimonials in dribs and drabs

To back up their claims, police showed journalists a video showing the bodies of Israeli women undressed and undressed after the October 7 attack, suggesting that the victims had been sexually abused. In the press, testimonies from survivors are multiplying. The Israeli daily Haaretz echoed that of a young festival-goer, who said she witnessed the gang rape of a woman. She was then allegedly shot in the head by Hamas men. This weekend, Le Parisien published a portrait of a survivor of October 7, "Esther", who said she was raped and beaten in front of her boyfriend: "It was so painful that I lost consciousness, they stopped when they thought I was dead." The young woman then said she had been mutilated by a Hamas man.

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At the same time, the police said they had collected testimonies from several volunteers from the NGO Zaka, which recovered the bodies after the massacre, in this direction. "Their accounts described many women's bodies naked and bearing signs of brutality and abuse," the Haaretz newspaper said. In addition to interrogating Hamas fighters held by the Shin Bet, Israeli agents can rely on extensive video evidence (surveillance cameras, footage from Hamas GoPro cameras), as well as facial recognition to try to identify those responsible for these crimes.

"Some elements, such as broken pelvis or naked women's bodies, suggest that there were rapes and other abuses against women during this attack, which is not surprising given its barbarity, but for the moment we have very few details," said Céline Bardet, a lawyer specialising in international law. War Crimes Specialist. "The phenomenon of rape as a weapon of war has been known for a very long time. It is a weapon that destroys future generations," adds Julie Goffin, a lawyer at the Brussels Bar and at the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body not recognised by the Jewish state.

"Denial" of international institutions

In Israel, civil society figures have come together in a commission "on the crimes committed by Hamas on October 7 against women and children." Some, such as international law professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, have criticized the UN's silence on the issue: "By remaining silent, [the UN] is not only disappointing us Israeli women, it is discrediting the entire system. It is losing credibility," the professor at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University told the Haaretz daily.

Cochav Elkayam Levy, professor of international law at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, agrees: "Women and girls have been murdered, tortured, terrorized and raped in the most inhumane way possible. The evidence is overwhelming and undeniable. And again, the same mechanism of denial inflicted on individual rape victims is now inflicted on all of us... Instead of being offered help, we are all subjected to international collective denial," she wrote on social media X.

"In 90% of cases, all that remains is the victims' voices"

On Tuesday, 21 November, a UN Women delegation finally met with members of the Israeli Civil Commission. The next day, Sima Bahous, the executive director of UN Women, said she was "alarmed by disturbing reports of gender-based and sexual violence. I reiterated the call [...] that any act of violence against women and girls, including sexual violence, be unequivocally condemned and must be thoroughly investigated with the highest priority."

These crimes have yet to be documented. According to Céline Bardet, the investigative work carried out by the Israeli police could prove particularly difficult given the context: "These are extremely degraded bodies on which the forensic doctors will have to work." Six weeks after the October 7 attack, work continues to identify the bodies at the Shura military base, which has been converted into a morgue. On the other hand, "in the Jewish religion, it is very important to bury the bodies quickly after death, so some of the forensic medical examinations had to be carried out at a minimum," adds the former expert at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

For lawyer Julie Goffin, "in 90% of cases, all that remains is the victims' voices. But as with any sexual violence case, the first thing you think about is running away and getting up" from the trauma. "Getting survivors to speak out is very important, but by seeking out this truth, you can also destabilize families and make the work counterproductive. That's why the truth can take years to come out." In the case of the Algerian war, where mass rapes of Algerian women by the French army were documented, the subject is still taboo, sixty years after the fact.

Feminist associations are tearing each other apart

In France too, the subject has burst into the public debate. A petition, which has gathered more than 37,000 signatures to date, including those of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (PS) and singer and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, demands that the October 7 attack be recognized as a "mass femicide". "Many civilians died, but women were not killed in the same way as others," said the text, which was initiated by the association Paroles de femmes.

On Saturday, November 25, nearly 200 people from the collective Nous vivrons, mostly of the Jewish faith, wanted to carry the message during the demonstration against violence against women organized by the feminist collective Nous toutes, which claims 80,000 participants. They had prepared placards reading "#MeToo#MeToo unless you are a Jew" or "Feminists, your silence makes you complicit." But when they were about to join the Paris procession, they came up against the hostility of an anti-fascist group and the police advised them not to insist. An episode that even provoked a reaction from the Minister of Equality between Women and Men, Bérangère Couillard: "As I said, we must condemn all violence against women. Including mass rape as a weapon of war, in Israel and elsewhere. I'm shocked that some (...) didn't want this message to be heard," she said, citing a statement on X.

For its part, the collective Nous toutes responded through a press release that the demonstrators "marched around the square with placards attacking some of the associations organizing the demonstration" and in the company of men wearing "shell gloves which worried the organizations present". In addition, the collective "unambiguously condemn[s] the sexual and gender-based crimes, rapes and femicides committed by Hamas."

In an attempt to get out of the controversies, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF) is organizing from December 3 to 5 an "information and solidarity trip" to Israel with French parliamentarians. NGOs such as the Women's Foundation or Céline Bardet's We Are Not Weapons of Wars (WWoW), which works on sexual violence in wartime, have been approached to participate.

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