Takeaways from AP examination of how 2 debunked accounts of sexual violence on Oct. 7 originated

An AP examination of the handling of two debunked stories alleging that Hamas militants committed sexual assault during their Oct. 7 rampage in southern Israel shows how information can be clouded and distorted in the chaos of the conflict

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JERUSALEM (AP) — The United Nations and other organizations have presented credible evidence that Hamas militants committed sexual assault during their Oct. 7 rampage in southern Israel. Though the number of assaults is unclear, photo and video from the attack's aftermath have shown bodies with legs splayed, clothes torn and blood near their genitals.

Other accounts from that day, however, proved to be untrue. They include two debunked testimonies from volunteers with the Israeli search and rescue organization ZAKA, whose stories helped fuel a global clash over whether sexual violence occurred during the attack and on what scale.

Some allege the accounts of sexual assault were purposely concocted. ZAKA officials and others dispute that. Regardless, AP’s examination of ZAKA's handling of the now debunked stories shows how information can be clouded and distorted in the chaos of the conflict.

The accounts have encouraged skepticism and set off a highly charged debate about the scope of what occurred on Oct. 7, one still playing out on social media and in college campus protests.

Here are key takeaways from the AP's look at how these stories originated:

VOLUNTEERS' INTERPRETATIONS WERE FLAWED

One account that turned out to be unfounded came from Chaim Otmazgin, a ZAKA volunteer who collected bodies after the attack.

After tending to dozens of shot, burned, or mutilated bodies in Kibbutz Be'eri, one of the hardest hit communities, Otmazgin reached the home that would put him at the center of a global clash. He found the body of a teenage girl separated from two of her relatives. Her pants, he said, were pulled down. He assumed that meant she had been sexually assaulted.

Otmazgin says he told journalists and lawmakers details of what he'd seen and asked if they might have some other interpretation. Today, he maintains that he never said outright that the girl whose body he saw had been sexually assaulted. But his telling strongly suggested that was the case.

Nearly three months later, ZAKA found out Otmazgin's interpretation was mistaken. After cross-checking with military contacts, ZAKA learned that a group of soldiers had dragged the girl’s body across the room to make sure it wasn’t booby-trapped. As they did that, her pants came down.

The other debunked account originated from Otmazgin's colleague, Yossi Landau, also a longtime volunteer working in Be’eri. In the days and weeks that followed the attack, Landau told global media what he thought he saw: a pregnant woman lying on the floor, her fetus still attached to the umbilical cord wrenched from her body.

But Otmazgin, who was overseeing the other ZAKA workers when he said Landau frantically called him and others into the home, did not see what Landau described. Instead, he saw the body of a heavy-set woman and an unidentifiable hunk attached to an electric cable. Everything was charred.

Otmazgin said he told Landau this wasn’t a pregnant woman. Still, Landau believed his version, going on to tell the story to journalists who circulated the account internationally.

CHAOS AFTER THE ATTACK

Israel was caught off guard by the ferocity of the Oct. 7 assault, the deadliest in the nation's history. About 1,200 people were killed and 250 were taken hostage. It took days for the military to clear the area of militants.

There were hundreds of bodies scattered across southern Israel, bearing various signs of abuse: burns, bullet holes, signs of mutilation, marks indicating bodies were bound. Confusion reigned over who was dead and who was taken captive.

Standard protocols for dealing with attacks, which Israel encountered frequently on a far smaller scale in the early 2000s, collapsed. The military was focused on battling back militants still hiding out in southern Israel. A ZAKA spokesperson said police forensics teams were focused on the southern cities of Sderot and Ofakim. Otmazgin said forensics workers were in the kibbutzim, but spread thin.

The gargantuan task of gathering the dead fell to ZAKA, a private civilian body made up of 3,000 mostly Orthodox Jewish volunteer workers. The organization focuses on giving each victim a proper Jewish burial. It had never witnessed anything like the carnage on Oct. 7. ZAKA’s main experience with victim identification before then was limited to distinguishing militant attackers from their victims, not determining who was a victim of sexual assault.

That means bodies that might have shown signs of sexual assault could have eluded examination. Instead, they were loaded into body bags, sent to a facility to be identified and dispatched for quick burial.

EASY ACCESS TO THE VOLUNTEERS HELPED SPREAD THE STORIES

Almost immediately after Oct. 7, Israel began allowing groups of journalists to visit the ravaged kibbutzim. On the trips, journalists found ZAKA volunteers to be among the most accessible and willing to talk.

The group’s usual media protocols were bypassed, and volunteers who typically would be vetted by ZAKA's spokesperson before being interviewed spoke to journalists directly, drawing conclusions about what they saw, even though the group acknowledges that its volunteers are not forensics workers.

After untrue accounts of sexual assault spread in the international media, the process of debunking them appeared, at times, to take center stage in the global dispute over the facts of Oct. 7.

Some of Israel's critics seized on the debunked ZAKA accounts and other untrue ones as proof that the Israeli government distorted the facts to justify the war — one in which more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, many of them women and children, according to Gaza health officials.

ACCOUNTS WERE FALSE BUT EVIDENCE OF SEXUAL ASSAULT MOUNTS

The loud debate belies a growing body of evidence supporting the claim that sexual assault took place that day, even as its scope remains difficult to ascertain.

A U.N. fact-finding team found "reasonable grounds" to believe that some of those who stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7 had committed sexual violence, including rape and gang rape. But the U.N. investigators also said that in the absence of forensic evidence and survivor testimony, it would be impossible to determine the scope of such violence. Hamas has denied its forces committed sexual violence.

The investigators described the accounts that originated with Otmazgin and Landau to be “unfounded.”

The U.N. report shines a light on the issues that have contributed to the skepticism over sexual violence. It said there was “limited crime scene processing” and some evidence of sexual assault may have been lost due to “the interventions of some inadequately trained volunteer first responders.” It also said global scrutiny of the accounts emerging from Oct. 7 may have deterred survivors from coming forward.

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