The UN rights chief voiced deep concern on Wednesday over allegations of sexual violence by Hamas militants during their October 7 attack, calling on Israel to allow his team in to investigate.
"These are very, very serious allegations and they need to be investigated, they need to be properly documented," Volker Turk, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, told a press conference.
"Justice must be served for the victims," he said, stressing that he had repeatedly asked Israel for access to investigate the claims, with no response.
Turk's comments came amid mounting criticism of the UN over its lacklustre response to the alleged rapes and other sexual violence committed during Hamas's unprecedented attack inside Israel on October 7.
Even before forensic examinations began, an abundance of images pointed to the gruesome nature of the attacks, with pictures shared online and live footage streamed by the militants as they killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to an Israeli count.
- 'Unfounded lies' -
In response to the Hamas attack, Israel vowed to destroy the group, and has carried out a relentless bombardment and a ground offensive in Gaza, killing more than 16,200 people, most of them women and children, according to Gaza's Hamas-run government.
Hamas has flatly rejected accusations of rape and sexual violence during the October 7 attacks as "unfounded lies".
Israeli police, meanwhile, say they have been exploring evidence of sexual violence, ranging from alleged gang rape to post-mortem mutilation, with a senior police officer last week saying they so far had gathered "more than 1,500 shocking and difficult testimonies".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly accused the Palestinian militant group of such acts, on Tuesday said that in a meeting with hostages released by Hamas he had heard "about cases of sexual abuse and cruel rapes".
Anger over the accusations have been mounting, with US President Joe Biden this week calling for governments and international organisations to "forcefully condemn the sexual violence of Hamas terrorists without equivocation".
- Too little, too late? -
But deeply frustrated campaigners have accused the UN of an insufficient response and the global human rights community of betrayal.
It was not until last week that the United Nations began issuing more forceful comments, including statements from UN chief Antonio Guterres and the UN Women agency.
Early on Wednesday, Catherine Russell, head of the UN children's agency UNICEF, described the accounts of sexual violence on October 7 as "horrific".
"Survivors must be heard, supported, and provided with care. Allegations must be fully investigated," she said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
"We condemn gender-based violence and all forms of violence against women and girls."
However, that comment was swiftly condemned by the Israeli foreign ministry as too little, too late.
Spokesman Lior Haiat blasted Russell for not mentioning the alleged perpetrators.
"The fact that she (Russell) doesn't mention the Hamas terror organisation is another way of turning a blind eye on the atrocities that Hamas did," he told AFP.
"By not mentioning Hamas she is legitimising their activities".
- Independent investigation needed -
Meanwhile, Turk highlighted that Israel itself had not responded to his repeated requests for access to investigate the allegations independently.
"We take the allegations extremely seriously," he said, but "you need to go into quite some detailed examination of whether it's premeditated, whether it was widespread, systematic".
"I'm not in a position to confirm this."
He stressed that for weeks he had "asked the Israeli authorities... to deploy a team, my team, to monitor, document, investigate the issues of the horrific attacks on Israelis".
"I've repeated this call and I hope it will be heard but so far, I haven't received a response."
Even if access is denied, Turk said that "we will find other ways and means to talk to whoever we need to talk to".
"Atrocious forms of sexual violence need to be thoroughly investigated, and we need to make sure that justice is served," he said.
"That's what we owe the victims."