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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Tensions rise between Israel and UN chief over sexual violence report



Abandoned and destroyed vehicles remain scattered at the site of the Nova music festival, where witnesses reported seeing rapes nearby after the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7, 2023, near the Israeli kibbutz of Re’im, Oct. 11, 2023. A United Nations report released on Monday, March 4, 2024, said that it had found grounds to believe that sexual violence occurred against women during the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel and evidence that hostages being held in the Gaza Strip were also assaulted. It called for a full investigation. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

By Adam Sella


In the latest sign of rising tensions with the United Nations, Israel has recalled its ambassador for consultations, claiming Tuesday that the U.N. chief was failing to take steps to address a new report finding signs that sexual violence was committed during the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel.


The U.N. report released Monday, which was largely welcomed in Israel, found “reasonable grounds” to believe that sexual violence had occurred in at least three locations, and “clear and convincing information” that hostages had been subjected to sexual violence, including rape. It said abuse of those hostages still being held in the Gaza Strip may be continuing.


Noting that an array of fighters from Hamas and other groups took part in the attack, the U.N. report said its experts could not determine who was responsible for the sexual assaults.


In a social media post, Israel Katz, Israel’s foreign minister, criticized U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres for not immediately convening the Security Council to discuss the report and to declare Hamas a terrorist organization. The authority to convene the Security Council, however, lies not with Guterres but with the president and members of the council, according to U.N. bylaws.


Katz said he had recalled U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan for consultation in protest of what he said was a concerted effort by Guterres to “forget the report and avoid making the necessary decisions.” Erdan was on a plane back to Israel on Tuesday, he said.


A U.N. spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, rejected the claim, saying the work on the report was done “thoroughly and expeditiously” and that “in no way, shape or form did the secretary-general do anything to ‘bury’ the report.”


Despite the skirmishing between Israeli and U.N. leaders, the report was welcomed by many in Israel.


Israeli President Isaac Herzog said the report was “of immense importance,” and he lauded it for its “moral clarity and integrity.”


The Hostage Family Forum said in a statement that the report made it “glaringly obvious that the female hostages are going through hell every moment, every minute,” and warned that the people of Israel will not forgive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Cabinet if they don’t bring them home.


Ruth Halperin Kaddari, a legal scholar and women’s rights activist, said Tuesday that she was confused by the decision to recall the Israeli ambassador from the United Nations. The U.N. report, she said, “serves as confirmation on the highest level of the fact that sexual violence and gender atrocities were indeed a part of Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7.”


But tensions have been rising between Israel and the U.N., which is broadly distrusted in Israel.


Guterres has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and has been pushing for an immediate and binding cease-fire, as well as for the release of the hostages taken during the Oct. 7 attacks.


Israel has accused about 30 employees of UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, of involvement in those attacks, and the agency’s head on Tuesday said Israel was trying to undermine its operations. And Erdan earlier called on Guterres to resign for remarks condemning the “collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”


The U.N. report was based on information collected in Israel and the occupied West Bank by a team of experts led by Pramila Patten, the secretary-general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict.


The U.N. report detailed significant challenges to determining what happened on the day of the attack. The report said it was nearly impossible to review the sort of forensic evidence often used to establish sexual assault, and it noted a deep reservoir of suspicion among Israelis toward international organizations like the U.N.


In the past, Israeli activists have expressed frustration over what they considered to be the U.N.’s slow response to the accounts of sexual assault during the Oct. 7 attack. On Tuesday, Herzog’s wife, Michal, said on Israeli radio that the report was “the first time after five months that a senior U.N. official supports what we’ve been claiming in the past months.”


In a post on Telegram, Hamas rejected the report, calling the findings false.

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