Seeking justice for Oct. 7 survivorsThursday 06/06/2024

 ‘I can’t explain how heavy a body becomes when it is dead,” she shared with preternatural calm. It was my first meeting with Yuval Raphael, a 23-year-old with a clear sense of mission, and an undeniable presence.

Despite the pain she carried, her motivation and focus were obvious, especially in her expressive eyes. As she spoke, everyone in the room was captivated by her unwavering voice, which hinted at both readiness and a profound sense of purpose.

Yuval survived the Supernova massacre by hiding in the far corner of the public bomb shelter just outside of Kibbutz Be’eri. We met in February. Four months had passed since October 7 and she was finally ready to tell her story to a team of lawyers and human rights advocates.

For the past seven months, the media spotlight has intensely highlighted the suffering of hostages and victims of Hamas’s sexual violence. However, it’s vital to acknowledge the thousands of survivors who are also struggling, and deserve recognition and justice. From the onset of this conflict, the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ) has dedicated itself to supporting these Israelis, focusing on their recovery and restitution as a crucial part of our nation’s path forward. Their stories and their healing are fundamental to the fabric of our community.

Approximately 50 festival attendees sought shelter with Yuval, thinking that the small concrete structure would provide safety from the constant barrage of rockets. Instead, this small shelter became their tomb, as the terrorists strafed the inside with bullets at regular intervals and threw grenades. During their first infiltration, Yuval became trapped under the dead body of another young woman. There she would stay for 8 hours, playing dead.

 “Every time we [those who were still alive] raised our heads, we couldn’t understand why there were less and less people in the bomb shelter. We thought the terrorists were taking the dead bodies. We didn’t realize it was because of the grenades, blowing up their bodies.” Of the 50 people who sought shelter with Yuval, only 12 survived long enough to be rescued – not by the IDF, but by the father of Nitzan, another young woman hiding in the bomb shelter.

IN MARCH, Yuval joined the JIJ legal team at the UN Headquarters in Geneva, where she engaged extensively with a broad array of ambassadors from around the world, testifying before diplomats of various nations. As she told her story yet again, this time before a distinguished audience, I was haunted by the parallels to my own experience in Gaza in the summer of 2001.

I was 19 years old, stationed in Gaza as a Givati combat soldier. This was well before Israel’s 2005 Disengagement, a time when our military bases, strung like vigilant sentinels along the Gazan border, were the linchpin of security. These outposts were more than just strategic positions: They were our frontline defense – critical for overseeing border crossings, curtailing the flow of arms, and swiftly countering threats.

On a hot summer night, two terrorists penetrated our base, killing my friend Tzachi, along with my commander and his medic. I was 300 meters away and heard about the attack on the radio. My friends who witnessed their murder directly stood inside the first circle of trauma and have struggled ever since to reach the normal milestones of adulthood.

My first brush with Hamas came 23 years ago when I was 19, two weeks before the 9/11 attacks in America. Since then, Hamas’s leaders have amassed a combined net worth of $11 billion. They came for Yuval when she was 23, leaving shrapnel under her skin, and a mind full of nightmares. Hamas leaders have vowed to do this again. As Hamas spokesperson Ghazi Hamad stated, “We must teach Israel a lesson, and we will do it again and again. The Al-Aqsa flood [October 7] is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth.”

THE HARROWING experiences recounted by survivors like Yuval Raphael underscore the urgent need for accountability and justice. Initiatives such as legal action against the perpetrators of Hamas are not only crucial for providing closure and restitution to the survivors, but also for upholding the principles of international law.

At a time when the International Court of Justice draws a skewed moral equivalency between an unprovoked slaughter initiated by the leaders of a terrorist organization and the defensive actions of a democratic country, and when the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announces plans to issue arrest warrants against Israeli leaders despite Israel’s strong and independent legal system, it is even more crucial that the voices of the victims are recognized and heard.

By holding accountable those responsible for heinous acts of terrorism, we not only honor the resilience of the survivors, but also send a clear message that such atrocities will not be tolerated. It is imperative that we support efforts to pursue justice, whether through domestic legal mechanisms or international institutions like the International Criminal Court in The Hague, in order to break the cycle of violence and build a safer, more just world for future generations.

The writer serves as the director of international law and public diplomacy at the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, an Israeli organization with special consultative status at the United Nations. The institute has represented survivors of terrorism, human trafficking and discrimination for 20 years. Before attending law school and joining the Israel Bar Association, the writer served as a combat soldier in the IDF.

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