Hamas refused to release women to keep them from talking, US official says

An International Red Cross vehicle carrying hostages released by Hamas crosses the Rafah border point in the Gaza Strip towards Egypt on November 24, 2023.

Photo credit: AFP

A US official said Monday that Hamas militants likely held back on freeing female hostages, ending a pause in Israel's offensive, because it did not want them to speak publicly about sexual violence.

Israel had paused its offensive in Gaza as part of a US- and Qatari-brokered deal to free hostages seized by the militants during a lethal raid into Israel on October 7.

Israel on Friday said it was resuming the military campaign as Hamas had not released all kidnapped women.

"It seems one of the reasons they don't want to turn women over that they've been holding hostage and the reason this pause fell apart is they don't want those women to be able to talk about what happened to them during their time in custody," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.

Miller, citing sensitivities in discussing treatment of captives, declined to give details on the treatment of the women.

But he said that the United States had "no reason to doubt" reports of sexual violence by Hamas.

"There is very little that I would put beyond Hamas when it comes to its treatment of civilians and particularly its treatment of women," Miller said.

Israeli police have also been exploring evidence of sexual violence during the October 7 attack itself, when Hamas extremists killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to an Israeli count.

A senior police officer recently told Israel's parliament that an inquiry has gathered more than 1,500 testimonies. Allegations include gang rape and post-mortem mutilation.

Miller said that Israel has briefed the United States "extensively" on its finding into the October 7 attack, although US officials were not on the ground making independent assessments.

"But we have seen Hamas commit atrocities both on October 7 and since October 7, and we obviously condemn those atrocities and support Israel's actions to hold Hamas accountable for them," Miller said.

Campaigners in Israel have derided what they see as a muted international response to gender-based violence during the attack.

Hamas in a statement Monday rejected accusations of rape and sexual violence as "unfounded lies."

Israeli attacks since October 7 have killed nearly 15,900 people in Gaza, about 70 percent of them women and children, according to the territory's Hamas-run health ministry.