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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Screams without words’: How Hamas weaponized sexual violence on Oct. 7



A camp area on Oct. 11 at the rave site in southern Israel. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

By Jeffrey Gettleman, Anat Schwartz and Adam Sella


At first, she was known simply as “the woman in the black dress.”


In a grainy video, you can see her, lying on her back, dress torn, legs spread, vagina exposed. Her face is burned beyond recognition, and her right hand covers her eyes.


The video was shot in the early hours of Oct. 8 by a woman searching for a missing friend at the site of the rave in southern Israel where, the day before, Hamas terrorists massacred hundreds of young Israelis.


The video went viral, with thousands of people responding, desperate to know if the woman in the black dress was their missing friend, sister or daughter.


One family knew exactly who she was: Gal Abdush, mother of two from a working-class town in central Israel, who disappeared from the rave that night with her husband.


As the terrorists closed in on her, trapped on a highway in a line of cars of people trying to flee the party, she sent one final WhatsApp message to her family: “You don’t understand.”


Based largely on the video evidence — which was verified by The New York Times — Israeli police officials said they believed that Abdush was raped, and she has become a symbol of the horrors visited upon Israeli women and girls during the Oct. 7 attacks.


Israeli officials say that everywhere Hamas terrorists struck — the rave, the military bases along the Gaza Strip border and the kibbutzim — they brutalized women.


A two-month investigation by the Times uncovered painful new details, establishing that the attacks against women were not isolated events but part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence on Oct. 7.


Relying on video footage, photographs, GPS data from mobile phones and interviews with more than 150 people, including witnesses, medical personnel, soldiers and rape counselors, the Times identified at least seven locations where Israeli women and girls appear to have been sexually assaulted or mutilated.


Four witnesses described in graphic detail seeing women raped and killed at two different places along Route 232, the same highway where Abdush’s half-naked body was found sprawled on the road at a third location.


And the Times interviewed several soldiers and volunteer medics who together described finding more than 30 bodies of women and girls in and around the rave site and in two kibbutzim in a similar state as Abdush’s — legs spread, clothes torn off, signs of abuse in their genital areas.


Hamas has denied Israel’s accusations of sexual violence. Israeli activists have been outraged that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and the agency U.N. Women did not acknowledge the many accusations until weeks after the attacks.


Investigators with Israel’s top national police unit, Lahav 433, have been steadily gathering evidence, but they have not put a number on how many women were raped, saying that most are dead — and buried — and that they will never know. No survivors have spoken publicly.


Israeli police have acknowledged that during the shock and confusion of Oct. 7, the deadliest day in Israeli history, they were not focused on collecting semen samples from women’s bodies, requesting autopsies or closely examining crime scenes. At that moment, authorities said, they were intent on repelling Hamas and identifying the dead.


A combination of chaos, enormous grief and Jewish religious duties meant that many bodies were buried as quickly as possible. Most were never examined, and in some cases, like at the rave scene, where more than 360 people were slaughtered in a few hours, the bodies were hauled away by the truckload.


That has left Israeli authorities at a loss to fully explain to families what happened to their loved ones in their final moments. Abdush’s relatives, for instance, never received a death certificate. They are still searching for answers.


‘Screams without words’


Sapir, a 24-year-old accountant, has become one of the Israeli police’s key witnesses. She does not want to be fully identified, saying she would be hounded for the rest of her life if her last name were revealed.


She attended the rave with several friends. In a two-hour interview outside a cafe in southern Israel, she recounted seeing groups of heavily armed gunmen rape and kill at least five women.


She said that at 8 a.m. on Oct. 7, she was hiding under the low branches of a bushy tamarisk tree, just off Route 232, about 4 miles southwest of the party. She had been shot in the back. She felt faint. She covered herself in dry grass and lay as still as she could.


About 50 feet from her hiding place, she said, she saw motorcycles, cars and trucks pulling up. She said that she saw “about 100 men,” most of them dressed in military fatigues and combat boots, a few in dark sweatsuits, getting in and out of the vehicles. She said the men congregated along the road and passed among them assault rifles, grenades, small missiles — and badly wounded women.


The first victim she said she saw was a young woman with copper-color hair, blood running down her back, pants pushed down to her knees. One man pulled her by the hair and made her bend over. Another penetrated her, Sapir said, and every time she flinched, he plunged a knife into her back.


She said she then watched another woman “shredded into pieces.” While one terrorist raped her, she said, another pulled out a box cutter and sliced off her breast.


“One continues to rape her, and the other throws her breast to someone else, and they play with it, throw it, and it falls on the road,” Sapir said.


She said the men sliced her face, and then the woman fell out of view. Around the same time, she said, she saw three other women raped and terrorists carrying the severed heads of three more women.


Sapir provided photographs of her hiding place and her wounds, and police officials have stood by her testimony and released a video of her, with her face blurred, recounting some of what she saw.


That same morning, along Route 232 but in a different location about 1 mile southwest of the party area, Raz Cohen — a young Israeli who had also attended the rave — said that he was hiding in a dried-up streambed. It provided some cover from the assailants combing the area and shooting anyone they found, he said in a 1 1/2-hour interview.


Maybe 40 yards in front of him, he recalled, a white van pulled up, and its doors flew open.


He said he then saw five men, wearing civilian clothes, all carrying knives and one carrying a hammer, dragging a woman across the ground. She was young, naked and screaming.


“They all gather around her,” Cohen said. “She’s standing up. They start raping her. I saw the men standing in a half circle around her. One penetrates her. She screams. I still remember her voice, screams without words.


“Then one of them raises a knife,” he said, “and they just slaughtered her.”


Hours later, the first wave of volunteer emergency medical technicians arrived at the rave site. In interviews, four of them said they discovered bodies of dead women with their legs spread and underwear missing — some with their hands tied by rope and zip ties — in the party area, along the road, in the parking area and in the open fields around the rave site.


Similar discoveries were made in two kibbutzim, Be’eri and Kfar Aza. Eight volunteer medics and two Israeli soldiers told the Times that in at least six different houses, they had come across a total of at least 24 bodies of women and girls naked or half naked, some mutilated, others tied up, and often alone.


The Woman in the Black Dress


One of the last images of Abdush alive — captured by a security camera mounted on her front door — shows her leaving home with her husband, Nagi, at 2:30 a.m. Oct. 7 for the rave.


At daybreak, hundreds of terrorists closed in on the party from several directions, blocking the highways leading out. The couple jumped into their Audi, dashing off a string of messages as they moved.


“We’re on the border,” Abdush wrote to her family. “We’re leaving.


“Explosions.”


Her husband made his own calls to his family, leaving a final audio message for his brother, Nissim, at 7:44 a.m. “Take care of the kids,” he said. “I love you.”


Gunshots rang out, and the message stopped.


A week after Gal Abdush’s body was found, three government social workers appeared at the gate of the family’s home in Kiryat Ekron, a small town in central Israel. They broke the news that Abdush, 34, had been found dead.


But the only document the family received was a one-page form letter from Israeli President Isaac Herzog expressing his condolences and sending a hug. The body of Abdush’s husband, 35, was identified two days after his wife’s. It was badly burned, and investigators determined who he was based on a DNA sample and his wedding ring.


The couple had been together since they were teenagers. To the family, it seems only yesterday that Nagi Abdush was heading off to work to fix water heaters, a bag of tools slung over his shoulder, and Gal Abdush was cooking up mashed potatoes and schnitzel for their two sons, Eliav, 10, and Refael, 7.


The boys are now orphans. They were sleeping over at an aunt’s the night their parents were killed. Gal Abdush’s mother and father have applied for permanent custody.


Night after night, Gal Abdush’s mother, Eti Bracha, lies in bed with the boys until they drift off. A few weeks ago, she said she tried to quietly leave their bedroom when the younger boy stopped her.


“Grandma,” he said, “I want to ask you a question.”


“Honey,” she said, “you can ask anything.”


“Grandma, how did mom die?”


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