Physicians for Human Rights Israel’s Clarification on the Organization’s November 2023 Position Paper on Sexual Violence

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In November 2023, we released the position mentioned above, intending to compile and summarize all public allegations and evidence available at the time. The reviewed materials indicated instances of sexual and gender-based violence during the Hamas-led attacks on October 7, 2023. Considering their gravity and extent, these testimonies could have suggested the potential for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The primary objective of the position paper was to advocate for a comprehensive investigation of the matter by competent and impartial entities. We stressed that our goal was not to authenticate or discredit the referenced reports and allegations or meet a legal threshold. Instead, our focus was on raising awareness of the issue, advocating for an official investigation, and pressing for immediate action to ensure that potential victims receive professional care suited to the nature of their trauma.

As a human rights organization dedicated to health issues, it is our mission to sound the alarm regarding suspected instances of human rights violations, particularly those concerning the right to health and sensitive topics like sexual violence. Such cases have profound consequences on the physical and mental well-being of victims, survivors, and their families. The urgency of releasing a position paper on the subject also stemmed from concerns that the hostages still held by Hamas may face similar threats, as well as efforts to apply pressure in support of their release. The position paper’s publication also sought to communicate a clear message to both past and potential future victims: we hear and believe you. This affirmation is vital considering the well-documented tendency to cast doubt on the testimonies of sexual assault victims.

It is essential to highlight that PHRI lacks the sufficient staffing, resources, or professional tools required to carry out the thorough and competent investigation advocated for in the position paper. Conducting such an investigation entails interviewing victims and witnesses, examining forensic and other evidence, and ensuring sensitive professional guidance to prevent further traumatization. Our aim in publishing the document was to encourage the establishment of a comprehensive and exhaustive investigation that meets these standards.

Our call, alongside those of other groups, to investigate the suspicions of sexual violence did prompt an investigation by a professional body — a team led by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten. Its task was to gather, assess, and authenticate information about instances of sexual violence occurring on and after October 7. The team released its findings in a report, confirming that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that conflict-related sexual violence occurred during the 7 October attacks in multiple locations across Gaza periphery, including rape and gang rape, in at least three locations.” Regarding the hostages held in Gaza, the team found “clear and convincing information that some have been subjected to various forms of conflict-related sexual violence including rape and sexualized torture and sexualized cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and it also has reasonable grounds to believe that such violence may be ongoing.”

In the extensive investigations conducted in the months following the publication of the position paper in November, some testimonies referenced within it have been disputed or deemed unverifiable, and more may face similar scrutiny in the future. We regret their inclusion in the position paper. As mentioned, a substantial portion of the information that is now available was not accessible when the document was originally drafted. The new information that has come to light further reinforces our call for an investigation into the subject. It is crucial to recognize that due to the fragmented nature of traumatic memories, they are often expressed in incomplete, confused, or contradictory ways. Therefore, it is neither accurate nor just for persons lacking the required expertise and tools to assess the credibility of witnesses. Accordingly, moving forward, we will rely on the Patten report and, when available, additional reports and documents produced by competent investigative bodies. We will continue to monitor their findings and reports while drawing necessary professional conclusions.

Since October 7, the Israeli government and other entities have been exploiting reports of sexual violence in a manipulative and cynical manner. These reports have been utilized as part of a campaign to dehumanize Palestinians and as a propaganda tool to justify Israel’s brutal military assault on the Gaza Strip. This assault has resulted, and continues to result, in the deaths and injuries of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, the forced displacement and starvation of most of the Gaza Strip’s population, and extensive destruction of civilian infrastructure, including health facilities. We are appalled by this cynical exploitation of the victims’ suffering, condemn it, and view it as a complete abandonment of any moral integrity.

We emphasize once again: Sexual violence and allegations of sexual violence must never be weaponized as tools of warfare or propaganda. As a human rights organization, we remain committed to standing alongside victims, raising awareness about any suspected harm or rights infringements, and doing so impartially, regardless of the origin of the violations. This is our duty, and we will persist in fulfilling it to the best of our ability.

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