On claims of rape during Hamas’s October 7 breakout from Gaza

Helena Cobban
6 min readDec 7, 2023
The high-profile former Meta exec Sheryl Sandberg headlined an event on this issue for the Israeli Mission to the U.N., December 4

Suddenly, at the beginning of December, and just as the Israeli military was resuming and indeed intensifying its operations in Gaza, Israel’s worldwide PR machine leapt into life with a large-scale campaign asserting as proven “fact” unproven claims that during the October 7 breakout from Gaza, the Hamas operatives had engaged in a broad campaign of rape and other forms of sexual violence against Israeli women.

What a coincidence. “Hey folks, don’t look at what’s happening to the civilians inside Gaza. Look over here instead!” (And a worrying proportion of Western media outlets did just that. Sigh.)

As a sometimes adventurous professional woman I’ve had to fend off a number of unwanted sexual advances over the years, on occasion a little forcefully. And I’ve done enough interviewing of survivors of rape and sexual violence in Rwanda and elsewhere that I well understand the grave harm that such acts cause. Obviously I would hate it intensely if my children or grandchildren were subjected to such harm.

But you know what? I’d hate it even more if they were killed. Murder is, I think, a very much graver harm than rape.

So first, a few facts. Al-Jazeera is now reporting that Israel has killed more than 17,000 people in Gaza since October 7. Most UN bodies estimate that about 70% of those killed are women and children. That would be ~ 11,900. Conservatively, let’s say that Israel has killed 3,000 to 4,000 women in Gaza. And those who are still alive are barely surviving amid the most God-awful circumstances imaginable.

Let’s think of each of those women’s lives lost or gravely harmed as being just as valuable as the lives of Israeli women?

And here are some facts and figure about the people killed in Israel during the Hamas-led breakout of October 7 — which is what we can know about, with much more certainty than we can know about women (or men) who may have been subjected to sexual assault.

I compiled these figures on December 6 from the page that English-language Haaretz keeps on its website, and periodically updates as new information arrives:

That adds up to 1,261 dead. There is a tiny bit of fuzziness at the very edges of the numbers, since that Haaretz page included (and thus did I) the very small number of Israelis killed in last week’s attack in Jerusalem — including the Israeli guy who was shot dead by the Israeli security forces there — and one or two civilians killed apparently by Hizbullah attacks in Northern Israel. But basically, those numbers look like good ones to work with.

What I take away from this is that 463 of those killed, or more than 36%, were clearly military or police. More than 63% were civilians.

The killing of civilians is clearly a war crime, as is rape or any other form of bodily defilement. But do we know how many of the civilians killed (or defiled) in Israel on October 7 suffered that treatment at the hands of Hamas fighters or their Islamic Jihad allies? I have to say that we do not, as there were two other types of wielders of violence at work in that part of Israel on October 7:

  1. The success that Hamas showed in breaking through the fencing system that had tightly enclosed the Gaza concentration camp for many years allowed some thousands of other men from Gaza also to bust out from their confinement.

I’ve seen several video clips of members those unorganized, un-uniformed crowds stealing stuff, or capturing people (which they had gathered was one of the general goals.) I have not seen clips of them killing or defiling people, though it’s possible that some of that happened. The Hamas squads seem to have taken no steps to police those “general folk of Gaza.” They were focused much more on attaining their military goals. They speedily (and very smartly) managed to take over the whole of the IDF’s “Southern Division” HQ, the entire Eretz checkpoint, and many other key military nodes.

2. The response of the Israeli military to that collapse of its whole “Gaza Envelope” containment system was extremely chaotic — and extremely violent. As numerous Israeli sources (e.g., as cited here) have revealed, the Israeli counter-offensive against Hamas was responsible for many of the deaths in the Gaza Envelope of Gazans and of Israelis… and also for much of the physical destruction (including destruction of the corpses of the dead, many of which were blown to smithereens by the IDF’s “Hellfire” missiles.)

The chaotic nature of this IDF response stemmed from the fact that Hamas’s takeover of the Southern Division HQ had left all branches of the military active in the region sightless and without any means to communicate with each other.

From IAF Col.Nof Erez’s words on Haaretz podcast Nov 15, at 1:06

Mondoweiss, the “Cradle” website, and the Electronic Intifada have all published very informative reports, based on interviews and reporting that have emerged in Israel’s own media, that tell how units from Israel’s tank corps, a drone squadron, and a helicopter squadron all rushed in an uncoordinated way on October 7 to the locations overtaken by Hamas and its allies… and how they then used large amounts of indiscriminate violence in an attempt to kill everyone who was there, whether they were Hamas people, or other Gazans- or Israelis who had been taken captive by the invaders.

Back in the late 1980s, the Israeli military introduced a new set of orders called the Hannibal Directive, which specifically allowed (or encouraged?) military units to use force to prevent the abduction of Israelis by their opponents, even if that force carried a serious risk of killing the person being abducted. The content, and even the existence, of that directive was kept secret until it was revealed by the New York Times in 2014. In 2016, it was reportedly revoked by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. But clearly it continued in existence at some level. In this interview published on a Haaretz podcast and annotated in English by EI, an Israeli air force colonel openly discussed (at 3:09 on) the fact that Israeli helicopter pilots applied a “Hannibal” on October 7. Or, as he termed it, a “mass Hannibal.”

From IAF Col.Nof Erez’s words on Haaretz podcast Nov 15, at 3:13

Given all that background, I think we can conclude the following:

  • There may have been cases of rape or sexual assault committed by some of the thousands of Gazans who burst out of the Gaza Concentration Camp on October 7. It is important that, where possible, all such allegations be thoroughly investigated. However, as of now, none of these allegations has been proven and they should not be treated by media reps or government officials as though they were settled fact.
  • The women and children whose bodies were recorded as having been found in in a state of gross defilement (“nails scattered in their genital areas”, etc) or dismemberment may well have been mown down by the IDF helicopters, drones, or tanks that rushed to the scene with their very heavy weaponry, or possibly by the Hamas fighters with their much lighter weapons during those battles.
  • If there were cases of sexual assault, it does not mean that Hamas fighters committed them. (Alleged “testimonies” on this matter that the Shin Bet has reportedly shared, based on their interrogations of captured fighters, should be taken with a whole bushel of salt.) Other parties who might have carried out rapes, etc, would include the numerous other Gaza Palestinians who were able to leave Gaza during the breakout.
  • While those investigations into what happened on October 7 should continue, the far more urgent priority is to end the fighting that continues to plague the lives of 1.5 million women and children in Gaza, and their menfolk, and to move the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict to a serious, decisive, UN-led peace effort.
  • We should all be aware that the Israeli PR apparatus has pushed these claims of Hamas having committed mass rapes on October 7 so heavily not just to distract global attention from the atrocities that the IDF itself is continuing to commit in Gaza but also to try to undermine the whole of the United Nations. That campaign cannot be allowed to succeed.

Originally published at https://globalities.org on December 7, 2023.



Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, w/ some focus on West Asia. Pres., Just World Educational. Writes at Globalities.org.