Unpacking the Claim That UN Found ‘No Proof’ of Sexual Violence Committed by Hamas in Oct. 7 Attack

The protracted, often bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict exploded into a hot war on Oct. 7, 2023, when the militant Palestinian group Hamas launched a deadly attack on Israel and Israel retaliated by bombarding the Gaza Strip. More than 20,000 people, the vast majority of them Palestinians, were reportedly killed during the first two months of the war alone. The violence is driven by mutual hostilities and territorial ambitions dating back more than a century. The internet has become an unofficial front in that war and is rife with misinformation, which Snopes is dedicated to countering with facts and context. You can help. Read the latest fact checks. Submit questionable claims. Become a Snopes Member to support our work. We welcome your participation and feedback.

  • The United Nations’ inquiry commission published a report in which it said, contrary to what has been claimed in social media posts, that it had found a “deliberate” and “brutal” “pattern of sexual violence” in Hamas’ Oct. 7, 2023, attack on Israel.
  • As the U.N. defines it, “sexual violence” may or may not include rape, sexual torture or genital mutilation. The inquiry commission said Israeli authorities had not allowed its team to access victims, witnesses, the sites of the attack, or evidence related to rape, sexual torture or sexual mutilation.
  • The commission acknowledged that its investigation — and the evidence it was able to amass — were limited by the fact that bodies had to be identified and buried quickly, following Jewish and Israeli custom. It added that survivors of sexual violence may be reluctant to testify publicly following the stridency and disbelief about the sexual violence that occurred on Oct. 7.
  • The commission also found that Israeli forces in Gaza had committed sexualized and gender-based violence during their military campaign, targeting men and boys in particular.

After the release of a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel into crimes perpetrated by Hamas and Israel, some internet users rushed to assert that Israel’s allegations that Hamas had ordered and committed sexual violence and rape against Israelis on Oct. 7, 2023, had been definitively debunked:

This post (archive) on X had garnered  more than 13,000 views as of this writing. Another post (archive), which had been viewed more than 1 million times and liked 54,000 times, accused Israel of lying:

Internet users continued to make that claim though June 16, 2024

What the UN Report Really Said

At first read, the report appeared contradictory because while the commission found sexual violence had occurred, it also said it hadn’t seen evidence of rape, gang rape, sexual torture or genital mutilation. In order to clarify things, we sought to learn how the U.N. defines “sexual violence“:

Sexual violence is any sort of harmful or unwanted sexual behaviour that is imposed on someone. It includes acts of abusive sexual contact, forced engagement in sexual acts, attempted or completed sexual acts with a woman without her consent, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, threats, exposure, unwanted touching, incest, and others.

Sexual violence, according to the U.N., can include several different things, including rape:

Rape is any non-consensual vaginal, anal or oral penetration of a sexual nature of the body of another person with any bodily part or object, including through the use of physical violence and by putting the victim in a situation where they cannot say no or complies because of fear. This can be by any person known or unknown to the survivor, within marriage and relationships, and during armed conflict.

According to the U.N.’s definitions, sexual violence is a broader category than rape. It also defines “gender-based violence” as violence committed against a person because of their sex. As we’ll see, it is true that the commission wrote that it could not independently verify allegations of rape (gang or otherwise), sexual torture or mutilation. The Israeli government refused to cooperate with the commission, which was not able to speak directly with survivors and witnesses, or access the sites where the violence occurred on Oct. 7. As a result, it was not able to confirm the accusations. Still, it found a pattern of sexual and gender-based violence committed on Oct. 7.

Investigating the Violence

On March 4, 2024, the U.N.’s special representative of the office of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (SRSG-SVC) released a report following a mission to Israel in January and February 2024. The office said the mission had found indications that a “recurring pattern” in Kibbutz Kfar Aza pointed to sexual violence that may have included “potential sexualized torture.” The SRSG-SVC asked for a more-thorough investigation into Hamas’ actions, which the inquiry commission attempted to carry out. 

“The Commission identified a pattern of sexual violence [on Oct. 7] that has been corroborated by the digital evidence it collected and preserved,” the detailed findings read. Examples of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the report included naked bodies, wholly or partially, hands and feet tied, sometimes with legs spread or bent over, with signs of violence such as burns, lacerations or abrasions, including on children such as a 13-year-old girl. Further, it corroborated evidence of targeted burning (emphasis ours):

Bodies of women were found completely or partially burnt in several locations. One witness told the Commission that many bodies of men and women received at [Camp] Shura [in Israel] were burnt in the genital area. In some cases, there were indications that gasoline had been used to set genitals on fire. In one case the Commission obtained video footage of the body of a woman who was set on fire with gasoline from the waist down. The Commission could not determine in these cases whether the fire was ignited before or after death. Some of the bodies were burned beyond recognition and/or decapitated.

The commission said it had “not been able to reach a definitive conclusion” as to whether rape, gang rape, sexual torture or genital mutilation occurred because it hadn’t been able to talk to survivors or witnesses or access the places where the attacks took place. The report added that Israeli authorities had actively “obstruct[ed] the Commission’s access to information related to sexual violence” by not responding to requests for information or calls for testimonies, or by banning medical doctors from talking to the commission because they cited distrust about the commission’s intentions towards Israel. The commission said it excluded false or contradictory allegations from the report.

Another fact that made the inquiry difficult is that after Oct. 7, the authorities focused on identifying the bodies (they faced criticism because they weren’t able to do this quickly) and burying them. It is the custom in Israel and in the Jewish world to bury bodies shortly after death. This was done at the expense of forensic evidence, according to the commission. Without the testimonies of witnesses and survivors and without forensics, investigators may not be able to ascertain whether acts deemed sexual were committed on living people or dead bodies, making it impossible to qualify the crime as rape or desecration of a body.

Meanwhile, Hamas denied the accusation that “its forces committed sexual violence against Israeli women,” according to the report. “The suggestion that the Palestinian fighters committed rape against Israeli women was fully denied including by the Hamas Movement,” a document released by the group in January 2024 read. But as per the U.N.’s definitions, rape is just one type of sexual violence, and the commission said in response:

[The Commission] verified information concerning the deliberate targeting of civilian women, including the killing, abduction and abuse of women, as well as the desecration of women’s bodies, sexual violence and other gender-based crimes. The Commission documented several cases where these crimes, including gender-based crimes, were deliberately carried out with brutal violence. 

Further, the commission said it read reports that said Palestinian attackers carried explicit instructions to undress, rape and otherwise sexually assault their victims, but that it had not received copies of these documents and could not confirm whether these assertions were true.

Reaching Conclusions

Notably, the commission said despite the fact that it wasn’t able to meet with survivors of Hamas-perpetrated sexual violence, it had obtained credible information that they were receiving treatment for it (emphasis ours): 

The Commission has not met any survivors of sexual violence committed on 7 October, despite its attempts to do so. The Commission has documented information that some survivors are receiving treatment but are not ready to speak about their experience with external parties. The Commission notes that survivors of sexual violence are frequently hesitant to come forward due to the risk of stigma and re-traumatization for themselves and their family members.

This pointed to possible future updates or new reports, which aligns with the notion that these inquiries can take years to reach definitive conclusions. The commission added that its investigative work may have been impeded by incredulity about sexual exactions committed by Hamas and its supporters, making it even more difficult for victims to come forward (emphasis ours):

The Commission considers that the inflammatory language, misinformation and disbelief surrounding the issue of sexual violence in the context of the attack of 7 October risk exacerbating these challenges and further silencing victims. The exploitation of sexual violence in conflict for political expediency risks removing attention from the experience and needs of the survivors, as well as fuelling long-standing animosity and dehumanization.

The 59-page report also examined allegations made against Israeli forces during its military campaign in Gaza. It concluded that both Hamas and Israel had committed war crimes and abuses of international humanitarian law and international human-rights law. It added that Israel had also committed crimes against humanity. Specifically, it found Israel had committed sexual and gender-based violence, particularly by targeting men and boys in Gaza.

Sources

Detailed Findings on Attacks Carried out on and after 7 October 2023 in Israel*. A/HRC/56/CRP.3, Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel, 10 June 2024, pp. 1–59, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/hrbodies/hrcouncil/sessions-regular/session56/a-hrc-56-crp-3.pdf.

Gaza: Hamas, Israel Committed War Crimes, Claims Independent Rights Probe | UN News. 12 June 2024, https://news.un.org/en/story/2024/06/1150946.

Ghert-Zand, Renee. ‘Israel Forbids Doctors from Speaking to UN Group Investigating Oct. 7 Atrocities’. The Times of Israel, 16 Jan. 2024, https://www.timesofisrael.com/government-forbids-doctors-from-speaking-to-un-group-investigating-oct-7-atrocities/?s=08.

‘How 2 Debunked Accounts of Sexual Violence on Oct. 7 Fueled a Global Dispute over Israel-Hamas War’. AP News, 22 May 2024, https://apnews.com/article/israel-hamas-war-sexual-violence-zaka-ca7905bf9520b1e646f86d72cdf03244.

‘Israeli Rabbis Work around the Clock — Even on the Sabbath — to Count the Dead from Hamas Attack’. AP News, 15 Oct. 2023, https://apnews.com/article/israel-rabbi-military-hamas-attack-cc5a54834246ed6699b111ad103f1774.

Mission Report Official Visit of the Office of the SRSG-SVC to Israel and the Occupied West Bank | 29 January – 14 February 2024. UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, 4 Mar. 2024, https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/report/mission-report-official-visit-of-the-office-of-the-srsg-svc-to-israel-and-the-occupied-west-bank-29-january-14-february-2024/20240304-Israel-oWB-CRSV-report.pdf.

Our Narrative… Operation Al-Aqsa Flood. Hamas Media Office, 21 Jan. 2024, https://www.palestinechronicle.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/PDF.pdf.

Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Including East Jerusalem, and Israel. A/HRC/56/26, UNHCR, 27 May 2024, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/hrbodies/hrcouncil/sessions-regular/session56/a-hrc-56-26-auv.docx.

‘The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Including East Jerusalem, and Israel’. United Nations Human Rights Council, https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/hrc/co-israel/index.

‘Violence against Women and Girls Is One of the World’s Most Prevalent Human Rights Violations, Taking Place Every Day, Many Times over, in Every Corner of the Globe. It Has Serious Short- and Long-Term Physical, Economic and Psychological Consequences on Women and Girls, Preventing Their Full and Equal Participation in Society.’ UN Women – Headquarters, 10 June 2024, https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/faqs/types-of-violence.

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