The site of a music festival near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel, on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.

Rape is ‘the most neglected war crime,’ sexual violence expert says

Ever since Hamas militants attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, the group has been charged with committing acts of sexual violence. Host Carol Hills speaks with journalist and author Christina Lamb, who is recently back from reporting in Israel, where she spoke with first responders and others on the ground.

The World

Editor's note: This interview discusses reports of sexual violence committed by Palestinian militants, mostly against women.

The war between Israel and Hamas started 10 weeks ago. 

Some 18,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to health officials in Gaza, with hundreds of thousands displaced and massive destruction across the territory. 

On Oct. 7, Hamas militants from Gaza attacked and killed 1,200 Israelis. The militants took 240 Israelis as well as foreign nationals hostage. Deeply disturbing details about that day are still coming to light, including incidents of sexual violence committed by Palestinian militants, mostly against women. 

Last week, Pramila Patten, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict expressed “grave concern” about these allegations. And she pledged to visit Israel to meet with survivors and hear their testimony firsthand. 

Christina Lamb is the author of "Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women."

Christina Lamb is the author of "Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women." Here she is pictured at the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Conference in London in 2022.

Credit:

Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office/Wikimedia

Christina Lamb, the chief foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times in the United Kingdom, recently returned from a reporting trip to Israel. 

Lamb is the author of "Our Bodies, Their Battlefield," a book about what war does to women. She joined The World’s host Carol Hills to discuss what she heard on her reporting trip in Israel, including testimonies from first responders on Oct. 7. 

“They told me how some of the young girls and women that had been killed, they'd been shot in the head, their jeans were pulled down, their underwear had been pulled down. They were often bruised legs and bloodied. And it seemed clear what had happened to them,” she told The World.

Lamb also spoke with people working in the morgue who identified bodies and then prepared them for burial. 

“Again, they talked about women,” Lamb said.

“Some had even had their pelvis broken. They'd been attacked so brutally. I saw pictures and videos which the IDF [Israeli military] made available,” she said. 

“But most convincing for me was talking to survivors of the music festival who told me about how they had actually witnessed as they were hiding and running for their lives. For hours after that, they had seen Hamas fighters attacking girls, gang-raping them, often by eight to 10 [men], and raping one girl and beating them and then shooting them in the head at the end.”

The people telling these stories were deeply traumatized, Lamb said. 

Carol Hills: Christina, you've reported on the use of sexual violence in conflict zones for a long time. What are the challenges in determining whether or not these sorts of acts were actually committed?
Christina Lamb: So, I mean, first of all, some people are saying, in terms of why this hasn't been reported before in Israel, you know, where are the victims? Who are the survivors of rape? Well, first of all, I would say, having written about this research about it in many countries, it's very difficult for women to come forward. I've interviewed women who've literally taken 50 years to come forward. People often don't come forward at the beginning because rape, unfortunately, is the one crime where the victim is often made to feel that they've done something wrong, so they worry that they will be blamed. But the other thing is, I mean, nobody was looking for this on Oct. 7, when they received survivors —it's not something that had happened in conflict there before. When young women were brought into hospitals, nobody was asking them, "Were you raped?" Or if anything like that happened. So, no, there was no testing, no rape kits. So, there may be forensic evidence that was lost. Now, we don't know whether there were survivors of rape and that they just haven't spoken, or the other possibility is that most of the people who were raped were either killed or taken hostage. And it was notable that the ones, for the most part, that weren't released were the ones from the music festival — the young women in their early 20s. In fact, I spoke a lot to the mother of a 23-year-old, and she's absolutely desperate. Of course, her daughter is in Hamas captivity, but also thinking about this, you know, she said, “We know that when young women are in captivity, that this is something that happens.” And so she was very, very worried that her daughter was being raped in captivity.
Do you think there's a possibility that Hamas might not be releasing those hostages because of what they might say about how they were treated and what happened to them?
Well, that's the fear, definitely.
Is there any evidence that that's the case? So we just don't know.
I've just read these — but some of the hostages who have been released, I believe 10 of them, have said that they were sexually assaulted or abused in captivity.
I'm struck by so many things you've been describing, but one of them is when I asked you about how you determine whether sexual violence has occurred, you then explained how you talk to all these different people — emergency responders, relatives, and they could reel off things that had happened. And what I'm wondering is, when people discuss cause of death, and how people died and what happened, our questions about sexual violence are simply not routinely asked. And so how people died and what actually happened to them is simply not recorded.
This is one of the problems. I mean, rape in war is a war crime, but it is the most-neglected war crime. And I think it's very clear at the end of conflicts when they're at negotiations or sometimes even trials, it's not thought about. So the Yazidis, who were captured by Islamic State fighters in Iraq and held as sex slaves back in 2014, thousands of them, which, you know, was reported on a lot, a lot of them spoke about what had happened, which is very hard to do. But in the end, you know, nobody was actually prosecuted. And I went to some of the trials of Islamic State fighters in Iraq, and I asked the prosecutor, “These people that you were trying, did any of them take Yazidis as sex slaves?” And he said, “Yes, most of them.” So I said, “Why aren't you also trying them, then, for that? For sexual violence and abduction.” And he just laughed. He said, “Why would we do that? We're already trying them for killing and torture.” And he just couldn't see. To him, the rape was somehow a side issue? And I think that, far too often, is the case.

Hamas has strongly rejected all claims of sexual assault and rape by members of its armed wing on Oct. 7, or after that.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed.

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