Israeli hostage says she was sexually assaulted and tortured in Gaza

Amit Soussana, an Israeli lawyer, was kidnapped from her home on October 7, beaten and dragged to Gaza by at least 10 men, some armed. A few days into her imprisonment, she said, her guard began asking her about her sex life.

Ms. Soussana said she was held alone in a child’s room, tied by her left ankle. Sometimes the guard would come in, sit on the bed next to her, lift her shirt and touch her, she said.

He also kept asking when her period would come. When her period ended around Oct. 18, she tried to scare him off by pretending she had been bleeding for nearly a week, she recalled.

Around Oct. 24, the security guard, who called himself Muhammad, attacked her, she said.

Early that morning, she said, Muhammad opened her necklace and left it in the bathroom. After she undressed and began washing herself in the bathtub, Muhammad returned and stood in the doorway with a gun.

“He came up to me and put the gun to my forehead,” Ms. Soussana recalled during eight hours of interviews with The New York Times in mid-March. After hitting Ms. Soussana and forcing her to take off her towel, Muhammad groped her, sat her on the edge of the bathtub and hit her again, she said.

He dragged her at gunpoint back to the nursery, a room full of pictures of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, she recalled.

“He then forced me to commit a sexual act on him with the gun pointed at me,” Ms. Soussana said.

Ms. Soussana, 40, is the first Israeli to speak publicly about sexual assault while in captivity following the Hamas-led raid on southern Israel. In her interviews with The Times, most of which were conducted in English, she provided extensive details of the sexual and other violence she suffered during her 55-day ordeal.

Ms. Soussana’s personal account of her experience in captivity matches what she told two doctors and a social worker less than 24 hours after her release on November 30. Her accounts of her report outline the nature of the sexual act; The Times agreed not to disclose the details.

Ms. Soussana described being held in about half a dozen locations, including private homes, an office and an underground tunnel. Later in her detention, she said, a group of captors hung her from the gap between two couches and beat her.

For months, Hamas and its supporters have denied that their members sexually abused people in captivity or during the Oct. 7 terror attack. This month, a United Nations report said there was “clear and convincing information” that some hostages had been subjected to sexual violence and that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe there was sexual violence during the raid Violence came. At the same time, the “challenges and limitations” of the investigation were acknowledged The subject.

After Ms. Soussana was released along with 105 other hostages in a ceasefire in late November, she spoke only vaguely publicly about her treatment in Gaza and shied away from recounting such traumatic experiences. When she was filmed by Hamas a few minutes before her release, she pretended to have been treated well in order not to jeopardize her release.

Ms. Soussana said she had decided to speak out now to raise awareness of the plight of the hostages still in Gaza, estimated to number over 100, as ceasefire negotiations stalled devices.

Hours after her release, Ms. Soussana spoke to a senior Israeli gynecologist, Dr. Julia Barda, and a social worker, Valeria Tsekhovsky, about the sexual assault, the two women said in separate interviews with The Times. A medical report filed jointly by them and reviewed by The Times briefly summarizes their report.

“Amit spoke immediately, fluently and in detail, not only about her sexual assault but also about the many other ordeals she experienced,” said Dr. Barda.

The following day, Dec. 1, Ms. Soussana shared her experience with a doctor at Israel’s National Center for Forensic Medicine, according to the center’s medical report reviewed by The Times.

Siegal Sadetzki, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s medical school who volunteers and advises Ms. Soussana’s family, said Ms. Soussana told her about the sexual assault just days after her release. Professor Sadetzki, a former senior Israeli health official, said Ms. Soussana’s reports remained consistent.

Ms. Soussana also spoke to the U.N. team that released the sexual violence report, but The Times was unable to verify her testimony.

A Hamas spokesman, Basem Naim, said in a 1,300-word response to the Times that it was important for the group to investigate Ms. Soussana’s allegations, but such an investigation was impossible under “current circumstances.”

Mr Naim questioned Ms Soussana’s account and asked why she had not spoken publicly about the extent of her abuse. He said the level of detail in their report made it “hard to believe the story unless it was made up by some security officials.”

“For us, the human body, and especially that of women, is sacred,” he said, adding that Hamas’ religious beliefs “prohibit any mistreatment of a human being, regardless of their gender, religion or ethnicity.”

Mr. Naim criticized the Times for its lack of coverage of the suffering of Palestinians, including reports of sexual assaults by Israeli soldiers on Palestinian women that have been the subject of investigations by U.N. officials, human rights groups and others. He also said that “civilian hostages were not the target” of the raid and that “from the first moment we expressed our willingness to release them.”

A Hamas planning document found in a village shortly after the Oct. 7 raid and reviewed by the Times states: “Take soldiers and civilians as prisoners and hostages with whom you can negotiate.” A video from October 7 shows uniformed Hamas fighters kidnapping civilians.

Ms. Soussana lived alone in a cramped one-story house on the west side of Kibbutz Kfar Azza. After hearing sirens warning of missile attacks on Oct. 7, she sought shelter in her bedroom, which was also a reinforced security room, she said. From her bedroom, Ms. Soussana listened as the attackers’ shots got closer.

Located about 1.5 miles from Gaza, the small kibbutz was one of more than 20 Israeli villages, towns and military bases overrun that day by thousands who streamed across the Gaza border shortly after dawn. About 1,200 people were killed and about 250 kidnapped that day, Israeli officials say, sparking a war in Gaza that has killed at least 31,000 Palestinians, according to local health authorities.

Ms. Soussana was at the kibbutz almost by chance. She had a fever and was recovering the day before in the nearby town of Sderot with her mother Mira, who urged her to stay overnight. But Ms. Soussana drove home to Kfar Azza to feed her three cats, she said.

Ms. Soussana, the youngest of three sisters, grew up in Sderot. She qualified as a lawyer at a local college and worked for a law firm specializing in intellectual property. Her colleagues thought she was a hard-working, quiet and reserved person who kept her distance, her supervisor Oren Mendler said in an interview. In Kfar Azza, Ms. Soussana said, she rarely participated in village life and was not part of the local WhatsApp groups, so she was unaware of the extent of the attack on the kibbutz.

Ms. Soussana, left, with her sister Shira. Credit…About Amit Soussana

At 9:46 a.m. that day, she heard gunmen outside, prompting her to hide in her bedroom closet, according to messages in her family’s WhatsApp group reviewed by The Times. Twenty minutes later her phone died.

Moments later, “I heard an explosion, a huge explosion,” she said. “And the second after that, someone opened the closet door.”

As she was dragged out of the closet, she said, she saw about 10 men rummaging through her belongings, armed with assault rifles, a grenade launcher and a machete.

Part of the house was on fire – a fire that would destroy the building.

Over the next hour, the group dragged her through a nearby field toward Gaza. Security footage from a solar farm near the kibbutz, which was widely shared online, shows the group repeatedly throwing her to the ground as they struggled to restrain her. At some point a kidnapper grabbed her and threw her on his back. The video shows her kicking her legs so hard that the man falls to the ground.

“I didn’t want to let them take me to Gaza like an object and without a fight,” Ms. Soussana said. “I still believed that someone would come and save me.”

As the video shows, the kidnappers tried to restrain her by beating her and wrapping her in white cloth. Unable to subdue her, the attackers tried to transport her on a bicycle but failed, she said. Eventually they tied her hands and feet and dragged her across the rough farmland to Gaza, she said.

She was badly wounded, bleeding profusely and had a split lip, she said. The hospital report prepared shortly after her release stated that she returned to Israel with fractures to her right eye socket, cheek, knee and nose, as well as severe bruising to her knee and back. The report said multiple injuries were related to her Oct. 7 abduction, including blows to her right eye.

After reaching the edge of Gaza, Ms. Soussana said, she was shoved into a waiting car and driven a few hundred meters to the outskirts of Gaza City. She was untied, dressed in a paramilitary uniform and put into another car full of uniformed militants. A hood was placed over her head, but under it she could still see a view of her surroundings, she said. After a short ride, she was taken up a flight of stairs and onto a roof, she said.

After the hood was removed, Ms. Soussana said, it was in a small building built on the roof of an upscale private home. She recalled that militants were busy removing more weapons from a box. Then the gunmen rushed down the stairs and she was left alone, facing the wall, with a man who said he was the owner of the house and called himself Mahmoud, she recalled.

“After a few minutes he said I could turn around,” Ms. Soussana said. “And I was shocked,” she added. “I’m sitting in a house in Gaza.”

She said Mahmoud was soon joined by a younger man, Muhammad. She remembered Muhammad as a chubby, bald man of average height and broad nose.

Later that day, they dressed her in a thick brown garment that covered her body, she said. They gave her three pills that they said were painkillers. It was the only time she can remember receiving medication, let alone medical treatment, in Gaza.

The room, equipped with a fan and television, appeared to have been prepared for her arrival, she said. There are three mattresses, she said, one for her and two for the guards.

Early in her captivity, her guards chained her ankle to the window frame, she said. Around Oct. 11, she said, she was led by chain to a downstairs bedroom. She understood that it belonged to one of Mahmoud’s sons and that his family had been moved to another location.

The chain was reattached to the doorknob, she said, next to a mirror. For the first time since her capture, she could see what she looked like.

“I saw the chains and saw my face was all swollen and blue,” she said.

“And I just started crying,” she said. “That was one of the lowest moments of my life.”

For the next two and a half weeks in October, Ms. Soussana said, she was guarded solely by Mohammed.

She remembered the room being almost constantly shrouded in darkness. Normally the curtain is drawn and there are intermittent power outages most of the day, she said.

She said Mohammed slept outside the bedroom in the adjoining living room but often went into the bedroom in her underwear, inquiring about her sex life and offering to massage her body.

When he took her to the bathroom, he refused to let her close the door, Ms. Soussana said. After giving her sanitary pads, Muhammad seemed particularly interested in the timing of her period, she said. She said she spoke a mix of basic English and Arabic; She had learned a little Arabic at school, and her mother’s family – Jews from Iraq – had sometimes spoken it during her childhood.

“Every day he would ask, ‘Did you get your period?’ Did you get your period? When you get your period, when it’s over, you’ll wash, shower and wash your clothes,” recalls Ms. Soussana.

When it arrived, Ms. Soussana said, she was exhausted, scared and malnourished; Her period only lasted a day. She managed to convince him that her periods lasted almost a week, she said.

She tried to humanize herself in his eyes by asking about the meaning of Arabic words she heard on television. She also promised that her family would reward him financially if she was returned to Israel without further harm, she said.

In the afternoon, two of Mohammed’s employees came to his apartment and brought him a cooked meal, she said. Some of this food was given to her as her only meal of the day.

Israeli attacks on the neighborhood have become more frequent and frightening, Ms. Soussana said, noting that some were breaking windows. As the bombing increased, she said, she began to feel compassion for the civilian population and wondered why Hamas never built bomb shelters for its people.

“I felt for them,” Ms. Soussana said. “Just think about growing up like that – it’s scary.”

Early on the morning of the attack, she said, Mohammed insisted that she take a shower, but she refused, saying the water was cold. Undeterred, he let go of Ms. Soussana, took her to the kitchen and showed her a pot of boiling water on the stove, she said.

Minutes later, he took her to the bathroom and gave her the heated water to pour over her, she said.

After washing for a few minutes, she heard his voice from the door again, she said.

“‘Quick, Amit, quick,'” she remembered him saying.

“I turned around and saw him standing there,” she said. “With the gun.”

She remembered him reaching for a towel to cover himself as he came at her and hit her.

“He said, ‘Amit, Amit, take it off,'” she recalls. “I finally took it off.”

“He sat me on the edge of the bathtub. And I closed my legs. And I fought back. And he kept hitting me and pointing his gun in my face,” Ms. Soussana said. “Then he dragged me into the bedroom.”

At that point, Mohammed forced her to perform a sexual act on him, Ms. Soussana said. After the attack, Muhammad left the room to wash, leaving Ms. Soussana sitting naked in the dark, she said.

When he returned, she remembered him showing remorse and saying, “I’m bad, I’m bad, please don’t tell Israel.”

That day, Muhammad returned repeatedly to offer her food, Ms. Soussana said. She lay sobbing on the bed and refused the first offerings, she said.

Knowing that Ms. Soussana longed for sunlight, he refused to open the curtains, leaving the room in darkness. Desperate for daylight, she accepted the food, believing she had no choice but to appease her tormentor.

“You can’t bear to look at him – but you must: he is the one who protects you, he is your guardian,” she said. “You are with him and you know that it can happen again at any moment. You are completely dependent on him.”

Ms. Soussana said her captors took her away from the border overnight after a heavy, hours-long bombardment. Based on the scale of the explosions and the snippets she had seen on television, she later concluded that they were the start of Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza on Friday, October 27.

The next day she was taken to a small white car, she said. The driver was heading southwest toward the central city of Nuseirat, she was later told.

“Muhammad is sitting in the back seat next to me and has the gun pointed at me,” she said.

The car stopped in front of what looked like a United Nations school and Ms. Soussana was led onto a busy street, she recalled.

She said she was handed over to a man who called himself Amir. He led her up the stairs of a nearby apartment complex and into another private home, she said.

For the first time in weeks, she was free from Mohammed – but afraid of entering another unknown. “‘Oh my God,'” she recalled. “‘What will happen to me?'”

The man led her into a bedroom and closed the door behind her, she recalled. Inside, she found two young women playing cards, next to an older man lying on a bed and an older woman sitting in a chair, she said. Ms. Soussana was wearing traditional Gaza clothing, she recalled.

“They looked at me and I looked at them for about half a minute,” she said. “Then I asked, ‘Are you Israelis?'”

“Are You Israeli?” Ms. Soussana recalled one of the women’s response.

Three weeks after her abduction, Ms. Soussana was reunited with four other hostages. Ms. Soussana hugged her and burst into tears, she said.

The identities of the four others were shared with the Times on the condition that their names would not be used to protect those still in captivity.

A few days after her arrival, she was called into the living room of the apartment, Ms. Soussana recalled. Amir often played here with his children.

That day, guards wrapped a pink shirt around her head, forced her to sit on the floor, handcuffed her and began beating her with the butt of a gun, she said.

After several minutes, they covered her mouth and nose with duct tape, bound her feet and placed the handcuffs on her palms, she said. She was then strung up, hanging “like a chicken” from a stick stretched between two couches, causing her so much pain that she felt like her hands would soon be dislocated.

They continued to hit and kick her, focusing on the soles of her feet, while simultaneously demanding information they believed she was hiding from them, Ms. Soussana said.

She still doesn’t understand what exactly they wanted or why they thought she was hiding something, she said. At one point, the lead guard brought a spike and pretended to poke her in the eye with it, retreating just in time, she said.

“It was like that for about 45 minutes,” she said. “They hit me and laughed and kicked me and called the other hostages to me,” she said.

Ms. Soussana recalled that the kidnappers untied her and took her back to the bedroom. They told her she had 40 minutes to provide the information they wanted or they would kill her. She said one of the young women was so frightened that she asked Ms. Soussana if she had any final news for her family.

In mid-November, the hostages were separated: the two youngest women were taken to an unknown location, while Ms. Soussana and the older couple were driven to a house surrounded by farmland.

They found the house full of armed men who ordered them to sit on the floor. Suddenly the older woman began screaming, Ms. Soussana said.

The woman was looking into a shaft that had sunk into the ground, Ms. Soussana said. “I hear one of the drivers telling her, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry.’ It’s a city down there.’”

“Then I realized,” Ms. Soussana said. “We’re going into the tunnels.”

A ladder, several stairs and a series of narrow, sloping hallways led the three hostages deep down, she said.

When they got to the bottom, the guards said they were 40 meters deep, which they hoped would reassure the hostages, she said: the Israeli bombs couldn’t reach them there.

Ms. Soussana said a tall gunman wearing a mask was waiting for her downstairs. At first he started yelling at them and telling them that Israel had killed his family, she said, but then quickly stopped, took off his mask and adopted a different tone.

She said the man introduced himself in English as Jihad and told them his father worked in Israel and even invited his Israeli boss to dinner when Israeli civilians could still enter the Gaza Strip. He spoke at times in Hebrew. Ms. Soussana recalled that Jihad said he learned some of it from watching Israeli television and sang to them a famous song he had heard on a children’s program.

“I was shocked,” Ms. Soussana said. “Suddenly he was the most humane guy we met there.”

The ground shook every time a rocket hit nearby, making them fear they would be buried alive, she said. The tunnels were dark, damp, and too narrow for two people to pass each other. And in their underground cell, the air was so scarce that after a few steps they found themselves dizzy and panting, she said.

Israeli troops later captured the tunnel and photographed it. Ms. Soussana identified fabrics and mattresses in the images.

Her captors spent little more than an hour a day in the tunnel, climbing to higher levels overnight to get fresh air, Ms. Soussana said. The hostages begged the guards to bring them too.

After several days, the kidnappers gave in, brought her back to the surface and drove her to another private home, Ms. Soussana said.

They were still there when Israel and Hamas agreed to a hostage deal and a temporary ceasefire that came into effect on Friday, November 24th. The following day, the three hostages were driven to an office in Gaza City – Ms. Soussana’s last detention website.

Every day brought hope and disappointment. It was never clear which hostages would be released and when.

On Thursday, November 30, the last full day of the ceasefire, the guards were preparing lunch when one of them ended a telephone conversation and turned to Amit.

“He says, ‘Amit. Israel. You. An hour,” Ms. Soussana recalled.

Within an hour, Ms. Soussana said, she was separated from the elderly hostage and driven through Gaza City. The car stopped and a woman in a hijab got in. There was another Israeli hostage: Mia Schem, who was also released.

They were taken to a scrapyard, Ms. Soussana recalled. Around her, she said, guards were changing from civilian clothes into uniforms.

Eventually the two women were driven to Palestine Square, a large square in the heart of Gaza City, where a raucous crowd waited to be handed over to the Red Cross. A social media video showed Hamas struggling to control onlookers, who surrounded the car, pressed themselves against the windows and at one point began rocking the vehicle back and forth, Ms. Soussana said.

After a few tense minutes, Red Cross workers managed to get the women into their jeep.

As they approached the Israeli border, a Red Cross worker handed Ms. Soussana a phone. A person who said he was a soldier greeted them in Hebrew.

“He said, ‘Just a few more minutes and we’ll meet,'” Ms. Soussana said. “I remember starting to cry.”

Aaron Boxerman And Isabel Kershner contributed to reporting.

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