American Media Keep Citing Zaka — though its October 7 atrocity stories are discredited in Israel

American Media Keep Citing Zaka — though its October 7 atrocity stories are discredited in Israel

Israeli media has debunked the ultra-Orthodox group’s stories, but The New York Times won’t say so. [See related article and video below.]

by Arun Gupta, reposted from The Intercept, February 27, 2024

Yossi Landau is the head of operations for the southern region at Zaka, an Israeli search-and-rescue organization. Assigned to collect human remains after the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel, Landau and his fellow Zaka members riveted media outlets worldwide with the horrific atrocities they saw.

Speaking through tears at the Jerusalem Press Club shortly after the attack, Landau described finding a pregnant woman in Kibbutz Be’eri in a “big puddle of blood, face down.”

“Her stomach was butchered open,” Landau said. “The baby that was connected to the cord was stabbed.”

In Be’eri, he said, he also found a family who was tied up, tortured, and executed with a bullet to the back of the head: father, mother, and two small children around 6 or 7 years old. An eye was missing, fingers chopped off. Landau later told CNN, “The terrorists were having a ball,” with Palestinian militants devouring a holiday meal set out by the family. Landau broke down recounting the tale, as a CNN reporter comforted him.

Long after Landau’s emotional recollections were replayed, repeated, cited, and quoted in the global media, a problem emerged: No one could find any evidence that the two massacres ever took place — in Be’eri or elsewhere.

In the case of the butchered mother and fetus, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz concluded the killing “simply didn’t happen.” As for the tortured family, no one killed in Be’eri matches Landau’s account. The one brother and sister to die in the kibbutz were 12-year-old twins, killed when an Israeli general ordered a tank to fire on a house where Hamas militants were holding them hostage. Nevertheless, Landau told these stories unchecked in interviews and press conferences.

Landau spread his tales far and wide with little pushback — telling similar stories on camera to CNN, Fox News, and The Media Line, and at an outdoor press conference. Even after reporters showed his accounts lacked any substantiation, news organizations continued to let him off the hook. The New York Times recently interviewed Landau as part of a profile about Zaka, but it did not mention either of his atrocity stories.

Western Media Whitewash

Zaka stories have been essential to justifying Israel’s all-out war against Gaza, which has killed around 30,000 Palestinians in less than five months. Speaking at the United Nations in December, Zaka deputy commander Simcha Greiniman broke down while describing alleged atrocities. He later told the same stories to a meeting of British parliamentarians.

Given its prominence, Zaka has been scrutinized by the Israeli press but not the U.S. media. A blockbuster Haaretz report found after October 7, senior military leaders sidelined Israel Defense Forces soldiers specializing in recovering bodies and preserving evidence and sent in untrained Zaka volunteers instead. Zaka reportedly turned massacre sites into a “war room for donations,” used corpses as fundraising props, “spread accounts of atrocities that never happened,” and botched forensics that are central to Israel’s claim that Hamas carried out a premeditated campaign of mass rape.

Even when Western media outlets have questioned Landau, the inquiries were half-hearted. The Times asked Landau “about reports, attributed to him, that children had been beheaded on Oct. 7.” It reported: “Mr. Landau denied making the claim, though he acknowledged sometimes misspeaking in the immediate aftermath of the attack. What he saw himself, he said, was a small, burned body with at least part of the head missing, perhaps severed by the force of a blast. It was unclear, he added, if it was the body of teenager or someone younger.”

While The Times said the statements had been “attributed” to Landau, there is no dispute he said them. He told the stories on camera, and the clips were posted widely online. He told CNN he found “a body, of a 14, 15-year-old. Head chopped off. We were looking around for the head. Couldn’t find it.” On India’s Republic TV, Landau said of beheaded children, “Yes, this occurred. This happened.” He made similar comments to Channel 14 Israel and CBS News. There is no evidence Hamas beheaded children or babies. As The Intercept reported at the time, the Israeli military said it couldn’t confirm the claims just four days after the attack.

The Times report on Zaka reads like a glowing portrait of selfless volunteers on a “holy mission” to honor the dead and give families closure in accordance with Jewish law. The article could also be read as a whitewash of an organization mired in sexual abuse and financial scandals for decades. The Times never notes that Landau appears to be a serial fabulist, and other Zaka volunteers tell stories that stretch credulity.

Landau has talked openly on four occasions of inventing stories: “When we go into a house, and we’re using our imagination.The bodies is telling us the stories that happened to them.” Another Zaka official said in an Israeli Foreign Ministry video, “The walls, the stone shouted: ‘I was raped.’”


Zaka volunteers have become ubiquitous in media reports about the attacks of October 7. They have been quoted by Reuters, CNN, The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian, NBC News, Politico, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and many other outlets — with few, if any, mentions of past scandals or present controversies.

These outlets fail to scrutinize Zaka stories. Many volunteers describe extreme crimes that would leave extensive evidence yet aren’t corroborated by reporting. Greiniman, Zaka’s deputy commander, claimed naked women were tied to trees at the Supernova music festival. He said he found a toddler with a knife stuck through his head and that he discovered foreign fighters — they had left their IDs in their pockets. A Zaka spokesperson said he saw dozens of dead babies, and children bound together and burned. Another volunteer claimed they found a sexually mutilated woman’s corpse under rubble with her organs removed.

Media outlets, including Israeli television news programs, have debunked numerous stories about dead babies, calling them “fictional.”

No one else has corroborated Greiniman’s story of foreign fighters. Months later, another source did claim to find five dead women tied naked to trees: According to a new report from an Israeli group, a farmer who rescued attendees from the music festival alleged the five women’s organs were all slashed and made bizarre claims about sexual mutilation. In three previous interviews, the farmer never made such claims nor is there any forensic or photo evidence to back up his account.

Instead of offering verifiable evidence of war crimes, Zaka volunteers serve another purpose: They are an invaluable part of Israel’s propaganda machine. Israeli government officials, in pushing for a total war on Palestinians, portray Hamas as another Islamic State, the Iraq- and Syria-based terror group that shocked the world by making women sexual slaves and posting a spate of execution videos beginning around 2014.

In an interview with the Israeli news site Ynet, Eitan Schwartz, a volunteer consultant in the Prime Minister’s National Information Directorate, a public diplomacy office, explained how Zaka volunteers influenced news coverage.

“The testimonies of Zaka volunteers, as first responders on the ground, had a decisive impact in exposing the atrocities in the South to the foreign journalists covering the war,” Schwartz said. “The entire state of Israel was engaged in framing the narrative that Hamas is equal to ISIS and in deepening the legitimacy of the state to act with great force.”

“The entire state of Israel was engaged in framing the narrative that Hamas is equal to ISIS.” — Eitan Schwartz

“The first-hand testimonies of the organization’s amazing men of grace, who were exposed to the most difficult sights, had a tremendous impact on the reporters,” he went on. “These testimonies of Zaka people caused a horror and revealed to the reporters what kind of human-monsters we are talking about.”

In the same Ynet article, Nitzan Chen, director of the government press office, said, “It’s hard for me to imagine Israeli hasbara advocacy vis-a-vis the foreign press without the amazing, effective activity of Zaka people.” (Hasbara is usually translated as explanation or diplomacy, but in practice it’s sophisticated information warfare to mold public opinion to serve Israel’s strategic ends.)

Western media lapped up Zaka stories. An Israeli government video of Landau telling his tortured family story is emblazoned with “HAMAS = ISIS.

The political response after October 7 played out like a coordinated campaign. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led the way, proclaiming “Hamas is ISIS” on October 9. Netanyahu’s rival and ruling partner Benny Gantz rallied behind the slogan, as did Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and other Israeli officials. Within days, top American officials lined up too. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin both echoed the sentiment. Even President Joe Biden said, “The brutality of Hamas — this bloodthirstiness — brings to mind the worst rampages of ISIS.”

Fundraising on the Scene

Israeli news outlets — in particular Haaretz’s investigation into Zaka — have called into question credulous media reports repeating Israeli claims that religious concerns and chaos prevented gathering of forensic evidence in the aftermath of the attack.

After Zaka personnel and soldiers from the IDF’s Military Rabbinate were deployed to recover remains, much of the collection was bungled, according to Haaretz. When soldiers trained in recovery were finally let in the second week after the attack, they were alarmed by Zaka’s actions.

An ultra-Orthodox organization made up of male volunteers, the precursor to Zaka, was founded by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav in 1989, formally becoming Zaka in 1995. The group relies on donations and government tenders for its budget, and after October 7 it made the most of both, according to Haaretz. The Israeli newspaper published a photo of Zaka members carrying out fundraising activities near a dead body; sources from other rescue groups observed Zaka volunteers make fundraising calls and videos with corpses in the background. The second week after the attacks, the Defense Ministry began paying Zaka for its work on the ground.

All available evidence suggests Zaka needed a cash infusion. The group was nearly insolvent on October 7. According to a 2022 Haaretz investigation, Zaka netted millions of dollars in public funds over the last five years by claiming more than three times the number of volunteers than it had, a timespan that includes the tenure of the current CEO, Duby Weissenstern, who was featured in The New York Times profile. Even as Zaka was under threat of bankruptcy in 2021, according to The Times of Israel, it used “shadow organizations” to divert millions of dollars to Meshi-Zahav and his family, allegedly spending it on groceries, plane tickets, luxury hotels, “and a multi-million dollar villa.” Zaka’s schemes, reported the Israeli news site NRG, included hitting up donors for money to buy the same motorcycle and changing a plaque to reflect the new donor’s name.

All available evidence suggests Zaka needed a cash infusion. The group was nearly insolvent on October 7.

Under Meshi-Zahav, the organization was beset by financial and abuse scandals. Despite knowing of “at least 20 cases” where Meshi-Zahav allegedly sexually assaulted minors, police failed to investigate him and closed the case without charging him in 2014. More than a dozen people came forward in 2021 claiming Meshi-Zahav raped, assaulted, and threatened them. “He allegedly exploited his status, power, money and even the organization he heads [Zaka] to assault teenagers and … boys and girls” as young as 5 years old, Haaretz reported. The abuse was a family affair: One brother was imprisoned for raping a female relative and a second fled abroad after being investigated, along with Yehuda, for lavishing gifts on seven teenaged girls in distress and then sexually abusing them, sometimes in Zaka vehicles.

One teenaged victim said Meshi-Zahav effectively turned him into a “prostitute” and rewarded the teen with “a Zaka beeper” and a coveted certificate of volunteer work. A young woman alleged that after being raped by Meshi-Zahav, he threatened: “If you say anything to anyone, a Zaka van will run you over.” Police suspected that top Zaka officials and figures in the ultra-Orthodox community knew of the abuse but helped silence the criticisms. Meshi-Zahav attempted suicide shortly after the abuse allegations were reported and died a year later.

No mention of this history made it into The Times profile, or that of any other U.S. media outlet that has featured Zaka volunteers. Meanwhile, the positive reports have been a boon to Zaka’s image and bankroll.

Zaka fundraises on Facebook and buys Google ads for donations. Days after October 7, with specialized fundraising efforts popping up, money began flowing to different Zaka outfits. The group was showered with some of the $242 million disbursed by the Jewish Federation of North America. It shared in a $15 million donation from chip-making giant Nvidia. Billionaire Roman Abramovich pledged $2.2 million to Zaka. At a November 19 “Unity Concert for Israel” in Manhattan, with Yossi Landau on stage, a sign displayed $1,000,430 raised for Zaka. The Zakaworld website has a campaign that has topped $3.5 million, and apparently a separate post-October 7 fundraiser totaled nearly $2.1 million. Haaretz calculated that Zaka has raked in at least $13.7 million since the attacks.

Zaka volunteers seemed less intent on bagging bodies than grabbing money. According to Haaretz, Zaka failed to document remains, put parts from different bodies in the same bag, and did not collect all the remains in homes and the field. Zaka volunteers apparently did find time to rewrap already bagged remains in material that “prominently displayed the Zaka logo.”

“Not Pathology Experts”

The New York Times’ Zaka profile came after the paper’s controversial December 28 article titled “Screams Without Words” about allegations of sexual assault during the October 7 attack. The report was widely criticized for weak sourcing and citing cases that lacked physical evidence. The Times, The Intercept reported in January, pulled a related episode of its podcast “The Daily” over issues with the article, stoking internal worries it could be another “Caliphate-level journalistic debacle.”

In the “Screams Without Words” story, The Times quoted two Zaka figures, one being Landau. “I did not take pictures because we are not allowed to take pictures,” Landau said. “In retrospect, I regret it.”

The Times beatific portrait of Zaka from January 15 seems to take an approach of blind trust in Zaka statements, suggesting that perhaps Landau did not say children were beheaded; that he “worries about getting details right”; that he diligently gathers human remains; that Zaka isn’t trained in forensics; and, finally, that women were subjected to sexual violence.

Yet these are Landau’s assertions, as is his claim that Zaka volunteers can’t take pictures of the dead. Haaretz reported that Zaka “released sensitive and graphic photos” from massacre sites. There is news footage, showing remains being carried on stretchers, labeled “Videos taken onsite by Zaka volunteers.” And Greiniman, the Zaka deputy commander, has bragged at least three times of “all the pictures and all the evidence, we have everything to prove it” — but nothing has ever been publicly produced.

Zaka always seemed ill-suited for the task of forensics. In the 1980s, Meshi-Zahav led an extremist ultra-Orthodox movement called Keshet, which protested archaeological digs and autopsies as religious desecration. Keshet members reportedly terrorized doctors and pathologists by planting fake explosives at their homes and sending them bullets with a note “this time it’s only in the mail.”

The group has also operated a legal department “for decades” whose purpose was to block police and pathologists from conducting medical examinations on dead bodies, which has hampered criminal investigations. No Western media outlet has asked why an organization hostile to forensic pathology was allowed to bungle the most significant forensic evidence in Israel’s history.

Zaka acknowledges the shortcomings of testimony from its own members. Haaretz debunked Landau’s tale of the pregnant woman’s corpse in Kibbutz Be’eri whose fetus was cut out by Hamas attackers. There is no independent corroboration of Landau’s claim, Kibbutz Bee’ri denied that the incident occurred there, police said they have no record of the case, and a “pathology source” at the main morgue did not know of the case.

In a statement to Haaretz on the lack of supporting evidence for its volunteers’ accounts, Zaka said: “The volunteers are not pathology experts and do not have the professional tools to identify a murdered person and his age, or declare how he was murdered, except for eyewitness testimony.”

Tali Shapiro contributed research to this story.

Author Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and has written for The Washington Post, The Nation, The Daily Beast, The Raw Story, The Guardian, and other publications.

Researcher Tali Shapiro is an Israeli solidarity activist who takes part in Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank. She is a member of the Israeli Boycott From Within group and participates in the “Israel Genocide?” campaign, which raises awareness to the possibility that Israel’s systematic human rights violations against the Indigenous Palestinian people amount to the crime of genocide.


Claims of Mass Rape by Hamas Unravel Upon Investigation

by Arun Gupta, reposted from Yes! Magazine, March 5, 2024

This investigative report uncovers questionable sourcing and a striking lack of physical or eyewitness evidence in two early reports that have been widely cited to bolster claims that Hamas committed mass sexual violence in its Oct. 7, 2023, attack on Israel.

Claims of Mass Rape by Hamas Unravel Upon Investigation
Illustration by Deema Alawa/YesMedia (photo)

Following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks that resulted in at least 1,163 deaths, rumors began circulating that Israeli women were experiencing horrific mass rape and sexual violence. Months later, a position paper by Physicians for Human Rights Israel and a New York Times investigation convinced many observers that Hamas used rape as a weapon of war. But an investigation by YES! examining both reports, other media investigations, hundreds of news articles, interviews with Israeli sources, and photo and video evidence reveals a shocking conclusion: There is no evidence mass rape occurred.

The New Yorker, The New York Times, Associated Press, and The Nation treat PHRI’s paper as the gold standard for proof of Hamas’ rape and sexual violence. But the paper is shockingly thin. It lacks original reporting and is based on media reports that are dubious at best with no corroboration — no forensic evidence, no survivor testimony, no video evidence.

During a two-hour-long interview that was heated at times, Hadas Ziv, director of ethics and policy at Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), acknowledged numerous problems with the position paper she co-authored, “Sexual and Gender-Based Violence As a Weapon of War During the October 7, 2023 Hamas Attacks.”

Ziv admitted credibility problems with sources and that she did not review all available evidence. She was “unaware” numerous sources had fabricated atrocity stories about Oct. 7. Ziv said, “Yeah, that’s a problem,” about a soldier she quotes whose claim of rape was changed by the government. She quoted volunteers from Zaka, a scandal-plagued organization that collected human remains after Oct. 7, but Ziv did not realize Zaka openly talks of inventing stories. When discussing claims that women’s sexual organs were deliberately mutilated, Ziv conceded, “OK, if there’s alternative explanations you can’t say that.”

While admitting “I did not know all the stories that you speak about that discredit those witnesses,” Ziv also lashed out: “I feel like I’m a rape victim that’s being interrogated.” YES! responded, “Not every interview is a friendly interview.”

Further, the PHRI paper is riddled with errors small and large. Names are misspelled, quotes don’t match links, and an individual is misidentified. Ziv was unaware that the Israeli government alleges it has forensic evidence of rape which it has not produced publicly. Most egregious, Ziv didn’t realize her paper counted one alleged gang rape as two separate incidents.

The New York Times’ Dec. 28, 2023, story, “Screams Without Words,” has also been treated as proof that Hamas committed widespread sexual violence.

The cornerstone of that report is Gal and Nagi Abdush, a couple killed on Oct. 7. The Times says Israeli police believe Gal Abdush was raped. But the only evidence given is a “grainy video” of Gal’s burned corpse, “lying on her back, dress torn, legs spread, vagina exposed.” Gal became known as “the woman in the black dress.” The story blew up in The Times’ face. Surviving family members denied she was raped.

PHRI references the video of Gal Abdush as evidence of possible “sexual abuse.”

The Times mentioned messages that Gal and Nagi, parents of two children, sent to their family during the attack. After Gal was killed, Nagi sent “a final audio message” to his brother Nissim Abdush at 7:44 a.m., “Take care of the kids. I love you,” right before he was killed.

But The Times fails to mention other text and phone messages that make it almost impossible Gal was raped. She messaged at 6:51 a.m. about intense explosions on the border, based on an Instagram comment by Miral Altar, Gal’s sister.

Nine minutes later, at 7:00 a.m., Nagi Abdush called his brother Nissim to say Gal was shot and dying.

Mondoweiss said Nissim told his story to an Israeli TV station. He said Nagi never mentioned Gal was raped, nor did Israeli police indicate to the surviving family that Gal was sexually assaulted. The Times never explains how Gal could be captured, raped, fatally shot, and burned to death in nine minutes while Nagi messaged his family and never mentioned any physical contact with Hamas forces.

YES! spoke with Nissim and Neama Abdush, siblings of Nagi. They said Nagi called twice, first to say Gal had been shot in the heart and had died, and then his farewell call asking them to take care of their children. Neama said, “No, no, no,” when asked whether Nagi said anything about Gal being attacked or raped.

In a follow-up call, Nissim reiterated the police did not give any indication Gal was sexually assaulted, but he refused to offer any more details unless he was paid 60,000 “dollars, shekels.”

Tali Barakha, another sister of Gal, wrote on Instagram, “No one can know if there was rape.”

The Dubious Dozen

PHRI’s paper stated there is “sufficient evidence to require an investigation of crimes against humanity.” The New York Times claimed “attacks against women were not isolated events but part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence on Oct. 7.”

Yet there are extraordinarily few sources. Twelve individuals account for the vast majority of rape and sexual violence claims in hundreds of articles.

Eight of these sources are in PHRI’s paper and six are in The New York Times report. Investigations by The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Straits Times, BBC, Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, NBC News, The New Yorker, and various CNN segments all rely on a combination of these 12 sources.

All but one of the 12 sources are connected to the Israeli military and police, such as the Home Front Command. Five of the sources are Zaka volunteers who told stories that smack of fabrications. Five other sources claimed they saw corpses that bore signs of rape or sexual violence. Not one of these sources was professionally trained to make such assessments, and nearly all fabricated stories, as described below.

Nearly all fabricated stories
Nearly all fabricated stories (photo)

That leaves only two people who claimed they witnessed rape. The government of Israel’s entire case for mass rape is built on two allegations: a source known as “Witness S.,” or Sapir, put forward by the police, and an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) special forces soldier, Raz Cohen. The soldier has changed his story numerous times, making it suspect, while Sapir’s account is so fantastical as to defy belief, as explained below.

Even if all 12 sources are considered entirely credible, their accounts lack photo and forensic evidence and survivor testimony. At best they are unsubstantiated claims.

As for evidence, two reports have thrown cold water all over it. First, Ha’aretz reported on Dec. 24 that Israeli police sent a court order to “general and psychiatric hospitals” to “provide information on the victims of sexual offenses committed by Hamas terrorists on October 7.” It was a tacit admission that police lack survivor testimony. The court order also undercut claims that alleged survivors were not being identified to protect them as unique details would make it simple to identify them.

Second, an even more revealing Ha’aretz report published on Jan. 4, 2024, pointed out that “[t]he police are having difficulty locating victims of sexual assault or witnesses to acts from the Hamas attack, and are unable to connect the existing evidence with the victims described in it.” Police are so desperate they appealed through the media, without success so far, “to encourage those who have information on the matter to come and testify.”

United Nations experts have provided some evidence. On Jan. 29, a U.N. envoy in Israel investigating sexual violence on Oct. 7 issued a plea through the Israeli president’s office for “victims of alleged sexual assault [to] break your silence.” It was met with silence. Then on Feb. 19, four U.N. experts said they “expressed alarm over credible allegations” that Israel had subjected hundreds of Palestinian women and girls in Gaza to “arbitrary detention,” “degrading treatment,” “multiple forms of sexual assault,” including rape, and “deliberate targeting and extrajudicial killing.”

Extrapolating “Evidence” From Hearsay

Much of the coverage of Oct. 7 is reminiscent of 9/11 conspiracy theories. Reporters have tried to glean “truth” from ambiguous photos and jumped to conclusions without considering other possibilities. An undressed corpse does not equal sexual assault. Clothes might be torn off while fleeing, in panic, hiding in brush, or dressing wounds.

The New York Times recounted the death of the Evens family in Kibbutz Be’eri, using texts and photos. Caught in a fire, “they stripped to their underwear.” Soldiers later found “several half-naked bodies lying under a line of trees.” The parents and two teenage boys “had all been shot dead.”

Similarly, metal fragments in a body does not equal sexual violence. A Reuters report on Be’eri, one of the worst-hit communities on Oct. 7, described how grenade blasts in a safe room turned screws from a sofa into shrapnel that punctured the leg of a 13-year-old girl. If she had not lived would that now be a case of Hamas sexual violence?

Asked about the Reuters report, PHRI’s Ziv admitted, “OK, if there’s alternative explanations you can’t say that” it was sexual violence.

Alternative explanations applies to nearly every sexual violence claim in the media.

Head in Hands

Two witnesses, the anonymous source Sapir and Raz Cohen, provide the most dramatic claims of sexual violence in PHRI’s paper, The Times, and other media. Sapir and Cohen attended the Supernova music festival and claimed to see gang rapes taking place 50 to 150 feet away from their hiding spots. The Times places them a few miles apart, meaning Sapir and Cohen were describing different assaults.

In early November Israeli police showed a three-minute video clip with Sapir’s face blurred to reporters, but they refused to take questions and have since “declined” to release the entire interview. Reports on the three-minute clip and shorter excerpts on the web were all that was known of Sapir’s story until The New York Times interviewed her “several times.” The Times says Sapir is “a 26-year-old accountant” who “has become one of the Israeli police’s key witnesses.”

The Times said Sapir was wounded in her back and feeling faint. She hid near a road covered “in dry grass and lay as still as she could.” She claimed to see a group of “about 100 men” involved in the horrific rape and murder of “at least five women.” The Times said:

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.” …

Around the same time, she said, she saw three other women raped and terrorists carrying the severed heads of three more women.

Compare this to what is known of the police video. In a 52-second clip of the police video, Sapir claimed a woman standing on her feet was raped by militants and passed around. Sapir said a militant “cuts her breasts. He throws it on the road. They are playing with it.”

Referring to the police video, the BBC added that Sapir claimed a militant killed the woman and continued to rape her. “He … shot her in the head before he finished. He didn’t even pick up his pants; he shoots and ejaculates.”

One journalist who viewed part of the video said Sapir claimed “some terrorists were carrying heads in their hands [beheaded] as trophies, saying there wasn’t a thing [they] didn’t do to the heads,” implying that Hamas fighters were having sex with severed heads.

Sapir’s story and how it changes between the police video and The Times report raises many questions. How could she see 100 militants and numerous assaults while lying still, covered? How does one victim of rape become five? Why did one woman who was raped and had her breast cut off in the police video become two women in the The Times story?

Given such a slaughter — severed heads, hacked-off parts, blood sprays, and five mutilated corpses — where is the forensic and photo evidence? Why are there no witnesses who can verify any of her accounts, such as sex with severed heads and corpses that sound like they are out of Dante’s Inferno?

The Times published a follow-up defending the Dec. 28 report after it was hammered for poor sourcing and lack of evidence, but it only raised more questions about flimsy reporting.

PHRI’s position paper bungles Sapir’s story as well, citing it as two separate incidents. It is first mentioned in the “Victims” section as “a woman who detailed the group rape and murder of a young woman by assailants dressed in military uniforms.” Then, PHRI cited Sapir’s story again under “Visual Testimonies” as it is a video. Hadas Ziv admitted the mistake to YES!, but no other media outlets have picked up PHRI’s error.

Changing Stories

Raz Cohen, the second eyewitness to claim he saw rape, is a former Israeli officer from “the elite Maglan unit.” Neither the original Times report nor PHRI mentions Cohen is an ex-special forces soldier or that his story has changed numerous times.

Cohen hid in a streambed with friends after fleeing the Supernova festival. According to The Times, he claimed to see a white van pull up about 40 yards away and five men drag a woman across the ground, “young, naked, and screaming.” Cohen said, “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, and they just slaughtered her.”

Initially, Cohen’s story was different. On Oct. 7, he described hundreds of terrified people fleeing Hamas gunmen across a field as some were shot and fell. Cohen and others hid for six hours in the bush as gunshots whistled above them and a battle between “our army and the terrorists” raged around them.

In the next three days, a shaken Cohen described similar experiences in videos and interviews. He said people were “slaughtered with knives.” The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported in an Oct. 10 story based on an interview with Cohen that, “Hamas militants stabbed a group of women nearby.” But he made no mention of rape or sexual violence.

Then Cohen’s story changed. Later in the day in an Oct. 10 appearance, Cohen said on PBS Newshour, “The terrorists, people from Gaza, raped girls. And after they raped them, they killed them, murdered them with knives, or the opposite, killed — and after they raped, they — they did that.” In an Oct. 24 interview with the Washington Free Beacon he also claimed a woman was raped and murdered.

It is notable that Cohen’s story is strikingly similar to Sapir’s: multiple gang rapes, killing with knives, sexual assault of corpses. No major media has picked up on the similarities, nor that the number of victims appears to go from several to one.

Since both Sapir and Cohen’s accounts surfaced, a different companion who hid with each one has since come forward. The Times interviewed both, and their accounts don’t back up those of Sapir or Cohen. There are other accounts of rape and sexual violence, but the sources can’t be identified or say they “heard” but did not visually witness rape.

Further undermining Sapir and Cohen are reports on the massacre of 364 people at the festival. CNN, BBC, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New Yorker, ABC News, and NBC News reconstructed the killing field using photos, videos, social media, and interviews with dozens of festival goers. It was a horrific slaughter, but no one mentioned torture, sexual violence, or rape.

Nor have police substantiated Sapir or Cohen’s stories despite possessing “over 60,000 ‘visual documents’ including videos from GoPro cameras worn by attackers, CCTV footage and images from drones.” YES! reviewed every graphic video and photo it could locate, including in a Telegram channel, Israeli government websites, and a five-part series of, frankly, snuff films. They show militants, brutal killings, and hundreds of corpses, but nothing like the scenes Sapir or Cohen described.

Body Bags and Money Grabs

The dearth of evidence of mass rapes has been attributed to Israeli government claims that religious concerns and chaos prevented the gathering of forensic evidence. But other reports indicate Israel manipulated evidence, forensics, and Zaka testimony that all create the appearance of a campaign of mass rape.

Ha’aretz reported Zaka volunteers sidelined soldiers in collecting evidence after Oct. 7.

[The] IDF decided to forego the deployment of hundreds of soldiers specifically trained in the identification and collection of human remains in mass casualty incidents. Instead, the Home Front Command chose to use Zaka, a private organization.

A Nov. 12 Ynet report suggests why Zaka took the lead. An information specialist in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office boasted to Ynet that Zaka testimonies “had a tremendous impact on the reporters” by portraying Hamas as “human-monsters.” That bolstered Israel’s narrative that “Hamas is equal to Isis … deepening the legitimacy of the state to act with great force,” the official said.

On top of serving as war propaganda, stories by Zaka volunteers appear invented. This author described in a recent Intercept investigation how Zaka officials say “we’re using our imagination” when they recount atrocities and “the bodies is telling us the stories that happened to them.” Western media is full of Zaka atrocity claims, nearly all of which are fabrications, dubious, or unsubstantiated.

Even more shocking, Zaka was founded decades ago by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who allegedly sexually assaulted at least 20 minors over decades before being exposed in 2021. Meshi-Zahav and relatives reportedly used “shadow organizations” to divert millions of dollars from a nearly insolvent Zaka into a “slush fund” to finance “a lavish lifestyle in 5-star hotels and a multi-million dollar villa.”

Ha’aretz reported that during Oct. 7 recovery efforts, a financially troubled Zaka used “the dead as props” for fundraising. In the process, Ha’aretz says, Zaka wrecked forensic evidence that could prove or disprove rape claims.

PHRI’s paper includes testimony from two Zaka volunteers. After being told a few Zaka stories, Hadas Ziv told YES!, “I didn’t know that they are unreliable. … But maybe I’m just trusting people who tell the story as it is and I don’t look into [it].”

Reuters, CNN, The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian, NBC, Politico, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post also quote Zaka volunteers with no mention of past scandals or present controversies.

A Flood of Disinformation

Remaining sources also have credibility problems. One is an anonymous paramedic with Unit 669, an elite Israeli search-and-rescue outfit. The soldier claims he found a dead girl, “14, 15-years-old teenager,” on the floor of a home in a kibbutz. She was “on her stomach, her pants are pulled down, and she is half-naked. Her legs are spread out, wide open, and there are remains of sperm on her back. Someone executed her right after he brutally, brutally raped her.”

He first spoke on Oct. 25 with Republic World, a right-wing Indian news channel, his back to the camera. Ziv linked to a clip in the PHRI paper from the same interview that Eylon Levy tweeted the same day. A spokesperson for Netanyahu, Levy is a conduit of disinformation.

In the full interview, the paramedic said a teammate “pulled out of the garbage” a 1-year-old baby “multiple times stabbed all over his body.” He also claimed there were “Arabic sentences that were written on entrances to houses [with] the blood of the people that were living in those houses.”

One infant was killed on Oct. 7, 10-month-old Mila Cohen, “who was shot while in the arms of her mother,” who survived.

Needless to say, these stories appear to be fabrications as well. More significantly, the paramedic is typical of other major sources. Their claims are wild, there’s no other witnesses, no independent reporting, no photo or forensic evidence, no information about the deceased.

Further weakening his credibility, the paramedic initially identified Kibbutz Nahal Oz three times as the site of the attack and translated its name as “River of Strength.” In Nahal Oz, at least 60 soldiers were killed and 12 civilians. Five family members were killed in one home, including two sisters, but they were adults, aged 18 and 20.

Perhaps realizing none of the victims in Nahal Oz matched the paramedic’s description, Eylon Levy changed the location to Be’eri in a tweet and trimmed the clip to cut out all references to Nahal Oz.

When talking to The New York Times, Associated Press, The Washington Post, and CNN, the paramedic only referenced Be’eri as the location. The number of victims changed as well, hardly a minor point, from one to two, to half a dozen, and back to one or two.

When asked about how she did her research for the PHRI paper, Ziv said, “I checked every report that was available to me.” The Republic World interview of the paramedic was available to her as she linked to the short clip Levy tweeted out in the PHRI paper.

After listening to a description of the paramedic’s false stories, Ziv said, “No, I didn’t see this one.” YES! asked, “So you didn’t look at all the evidence then?” Ziv responded, “No I didn’t, probably.”

Ziv also said, “Yeah, that’s a problem” about the fact Netanyahu’s office altered the paramedic’s story and that he is an anonymous military source.

Dead Babies

Six of the 12 sources fabricated dead-baby stories, including Shari Mendes. A volunteer military reservist who worked in the Rabbinate Corps at the Shura military morgue in Central Israel for two weeks, Mendes helped “medics with fingerprinting and cleaning female soldiers’ bodies,” according to Reuters.

On Oct. 20, Mendes told The Daily Mail, “A baby was cut out of a pregnant woman and beheaded and then the mother was beheaded.” Senior personnel at Shura, Col. Rabbi Haim Weisberg and retired Brig. Gen. Rabbi Israel Weiss, also claimed they discovered a pregnant mother killed with her fetus.

Ha’aretz says, “This horrific incident … simply didn’t happen.”

PHRI quotes Mendes from a Nov. 9 Times of Israel report. Mendes says, “Yes, we have seen that women have been raped. Children through elderly women have been raped. Forcible entry, to the point that bones were broken.” Mendes has also alleged, “We saw genitals cut off, heads cut off, babies, hands, feet, no reason.” She says, “This is not just something we saw on the internet, we saw these bodies with our own eyes.”

PHRI cites Capt. Maayan, an IDF reservist and dentist at Shura, from the same article. The Times of Israel wrote:

Maayan said on October 31 that she has seen several bodies that had signs consistent with sexual abuse.

“I can tell that I saw a lot of signs of abuse in the [genital region],” Maayan said, using her hand to euphemistically demonstrate. “We saw broken legs, broken pelvises, bloody underwear,” and women who were not dressed below the waist, she said.

The Times of Israel said Mendes is not “legally qualified to determine rape.” Likewise PHRI cautioned that “emergency and medical personnel who provided testimonies” were not “professionally trained to determine whether rape had occurred.”

But PHRI tries to have it both ways. It cites claims of rape and sexual abuse from Shari Mendes, Capt. Maayan, the paramedic, Itzik Itah and Simcha Greiniman of Zaka, and its final source, Rami Shmuel, a music festival organizer.

If these sources can’t determine rape, why include them? PHRI also says “the accounts they provided indicate the perpetration of sexual violence.” What qualifies them to conclude wounds are deliberate signs of sexual violence and not from weapons?

When asked how Mendes could have known broken pelvises were caused by mass rape, Ziv said, “She doesn’t, she doesn’t. She can only say that this is what she saw. She can’t say this is a result of rape.”

So why is Israel seemingly making untrained civilians the face of mass rape claims? At a high-profile U.N. session on Dec. 4, organized with the help of tech mogul Sheryl Sandberg, Mendes, and Greiniman testified and parts of Sapir’s video were shown.

Greiniman, a deputy commander in Zaka, claimed naked women were tied to trees at the Supernova festival, he found a toddler with a knife stuck through its head, and he discovered foreign fighters — they left their IDs in their pockets. Why did Israel choose to present sources with some of the most bizarre and hard-to-believe stories to the world?

Why have doctors, pathologists, or soldiers who recovered remains not offered testimony or documentation of rape, sexual assault, or other atrocities? Israel has produced videos of forensic investigations of Oct. 7 victims. Media were given access to document atrocities at the National Center of Forensic Medicine on Oct. 16.

On Oct. 14, Reuters, Ha’aretz, and Politico joined a media tour of Shura organized by Israeli officials. Reuters reported, “Military forensic teams … found multiple signs of torture, rape and other atrocities.” Rabbi Israel Weiss, who helped oversee the identification of the dead, said “Many bodies showed signs of torture as well as rape.” Capt. Maayan said, “Forensic examination found several cases of rape,” according to Politico.

But, according to Reuters, “The military personnel overseeing the identification process didn’t present any forensic evidence in the form of pictures or medical records.”

Not long after, Zaka volunteers, Shari Mendes, and the Unit 669 paramedic began making a splash in the media. Little has been heard from the forensic experts since.

Tali Shapiro provided research help for this story.

Yes! Magazine preceded this article with a disclaimer:

“The story that follows is not typical of the solutions journalism that YES! focuses on. The author first submitted a version of this story, centered on debunking a major New York Times investigation, to YES! and another outlet in early January. In light of the seriousness of the genocide in Gaza, and YES!’ belief in the importance of fact-based, impactful journalism, we accepted the submission and are proud to present the resulting in-depth investigation.”

Warning: graphic and disturbing.

Author Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and has written for The Washington Post, The Nation, The Daily Beast, The Raw Story, The Guardian, and other publications.

Researcher Tali Shapiro is an Israeli solidarity activist who takes part in Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank. She is a member of the Israeli Boycott From Within group and participates in the “Israel Genocide?” campaign, which raises awareness to the possibility that Israel’s systematic human rights violations against the Indigenous Palestinian people amount to the crime of genocide.


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