Vol. 46 No. 9 · 9 May 2024

What They Did to Our Women

Azadeh Moaveni on sexual violence in wartime

7665 words

On 4 March,​  the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, held a press conference to brief reporters on the attacks of 7 October. A team from her office had spent two weeks in Israel and the West Bank, at the invitation of the government, examining what had happened that day, but Patten was expected to make, at most, a short press statement. Her office didn’t have a mandate to investigate sexual crimes on the ground and had never undertaken such a mission before. I was told by multiple sources at the UN that her trip was a matter of fierce controversy within the organisation. Many feared it would establish little and that in the absence of a firmly evidenced narrative, her report might appear to offer the UN’s imprimatur to the error-riddled stories circulating in the press. The Israeli government wanted to prove that the sexual violence on 7 October had been systematic and widespread not simply in order to establish a record of Hamas’s crimes, but to help it justify the continuation of the war, which by the time of Patten’s press conference had claimed more than 30,000 Palestinian lives, and destroyed much of the Gaza Strip, as well as displacing almost its entire population. Hamas, for its part, denied that its fighters had been guilty of rape; it claimed that they were disciplined, committed to Islamic values and had been ordered to target military sites and ‘arrest’ soldiers.

Instead of the expected short press statement, Patten issued a 22-page report. She devoted the first ten minutes of the press conference to establishing the limited scope of her mission. Her team, she said, had ‘gathered information’, ‘not evidence’. They had looked for verifiable facts, which they did not assess according to legal standards. Because her team had no investigative mandate and couldn’t make legal assessments or analyse military behaviour, they couldn’t take a view on the two questions to which many were seeking answers: the scale of sexual violence committed on 7 October and the identity of the perpetrators.

When Patten held her press conference, five months into the war, it was clear that Israeli women had been sexually violated during the attacks, that those violations had been inhumane and that they constituted war crimes. What wasn’t clear was whether sexual violence had been part of Hamas’s strategy, whether or not the perpetrators were acting under orders (numerous armed groups participated in the attacks) and how many women had been affected. Patten admitted she couldn’t shed any light on these questions. She did find ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe sexual violence had taken place in several locations, including ‘rape and/or gang rape’, detailing three cases that her team found ‘credible’ and ‘verified’; at least two further cases, based on convincing witness testimony, involved the rape of corpses. The report is cautiously worded and makes clear that the limited number of cases that met the mission’s standard of proof does not mean that these are the only cases. ‘Available circumstantial evidence’, including a pattern of women victims being found topless or naked, might indicate the existence of further cases. With respect to the hostages, Patten said that there was ‘clear and convincing information’ that some of them had endured sexual violence and degrading treatment, including rape, while in captivity.

The reporters asked her to explain how they should interpret her findings. Were they to be taken as a collection of small facts from which larger inferences could be drawn? If that was the case, one journalist asked, how was her report any different from the unsubstantiated articles claiming systematic mass rape? How, another asked, were they to understand the significance of her mission, when she herself had made clear its limitations? The questions circled a larger concern: what was the purpose of such fact-finding when the important facts were out of reach? Or to put it another way, what factual narrative could be established when misinformation was rampant and Israel controlled the access to information – to sites, reports, survivors – and encouraged the media’s worst suspicions. ‘The fog of war … often silences crimes of sexual violence,’ Patten said. ‘But we have also seen in the history of war instances where sexual violence can be weaponised.’

It’s hard enough to determine the facts of sexual violence during war; it’s even harder when avenging sexual violence has become a pretext for continuing the war. Shortly after the press conference, Israel’s representative at the UN, Gilad Erdan, insisted that Patten’s findings confirmed Israel’s right to continue besieging Gaza. The report, he tweeted, ‘finally recognises the sexual crimes that were committed during the Hamas massacre. Will this wake you up?! Will you understand that a ceasefire means abandoning the female Israeli hostages in Gaza to continually being sexually abused by Hamas?!’

Reports of sexual violations emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas-led attack. Volunteer first responders took journalists around the attack sites and described what they assumed were instances of rape, based on the position and condition of the victims’ bodies. Images of women with bloodied underwear and bodies contorted in suggestive positions were taken as evidence that many women had been raped. Many of the specific allegations made at the time, Patten’s report noted, could not be verified. By late November, supporters of the war in Gaza were making unsubstantiated claims about the nature and number of the violations. According to Cochav Elkayam-Levy, the chair of an Israeli NGO investigating the abuses, ‘the torture of women was weaponised to destroy communities, to destroy a people, to destroy a nation.’ Michal Herzog, the wife of the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, wrote a piece in Newsweek arguing that ‘mass rape was a premeditated part of Hamas’s plan,’ citing photographs of partially dressed and brutalised women and the ‘confessions’ of captured fighters.

Israel and its supporters were quick to portray anyone who questioned these claims as complicit in the sexual violence. In early November, Eylon Levy, who was then an Israeli government spokesman, tweeted aerial footage of vast crowds in London calling for a ceasefire, with the comment: ‘I don’t think London has ever seen such a large demonstration of rape apologists before.’ At a press conference in December, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, switched from Hebrew to English mid-speech to accuse feminists of antisemitism: ‘I say to the women’s rights organisations, to the human rights organisations, you’ve heard of the rape of Israeli women, horrible atrocities, sexual mutilation – where the hell are you?’ Erdan also insisted that Hamas ‘had a premeditated plan’ to use rape as a weapon of war: the violence wasn’t a ‘spur-of-the-moment decision to defile and mutilate girls and parade them while onlookers cheered’. By failing to recognise this, he claimed, the UN was ‘openly discriminating against Israeli women’.

In the weeks after 7 October, the unverified and uncorroborated images and accounts in circulation included statements by four witnesses and photographs and videos showing bodies in various states of undress, positioned in sexualised ways, with blood and injuries that could indicate sexual violence or possibly the dehumanising treatment of corpses. (An article published in Haaretz on 18 April reported that there are several more survivors who witnessed sexual violence during the attacks, but didn’t make clear whether they had given statements to the police.) Some online commentators, both in the Arab world and on the political fringes in the West, refused to believe the rape allegations. The Grayzone journalists Max Blumenthal and Aaron Maté tweeted about ‘fabricated atrocity tales’ and accused the Patten report of ‘laundering’ the ‘Hamas mass rape hoax’. Their denialism galvanised Israel’s defenders. The New York Times columnist Bret Stephens said that he had identified a new form of ‘rape denialism’ promoted by progressives and other ‘useful idiots’. ‘How quickly,’ he wrote, ‘the far left pivots from “believe women” to “believe Hamas” when the identity of the victim changes.’

The counter-argument, made by less polemical figures, such as the Arab feminist Lina AbiRafeh, was that the facts mattered and that there was nothing immoral in trying to establish exactly what happened; on the contrary, it was ethically necessary. Atrocity reports are, and have often been used as, a pretext for war, and for further atrocities. In an open letter to ‘the Israeli and US governments and others weaponising the issue of rape’, dozens of feminist legal scholars and anti-Zionist Jewish feminists condemned ‘the opportunistic manipulation of the issue of sexual assault by those committing war crimes themselves’. History, they noted, ‘is replete with examples of rape charges being wielded … to render the “enemy” more monstrous – and thus as deserving of ever more depraved forms of militarised violence’. What was needed was access for unbiased experts to conduct proper investigations.

I have seen the terrible violence enacted on women in wartime in every conflict I have covered as a journalist since the late 1990s. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and Ukraine, war inscribed itself on women through sexual torture, the killing, disappearance and maiming of children, sexual abuse and exploitation, sexual slavery and, of course, rape – though rape is not always the most prevalent crime or the one that affects women most. In each war, the truth of what was done to women, and by whom, was muddied by propaganda: who started harming the other side’s women first; which side was the worst offender; who harmed ideologically and who opportunistically. In many of these wars, women were complicit in encouraging violence or refused to believe their own side could engage in it; women were involved in the infliction and denial of rape as well as being its victims. It can be difficult to get a reliable estimate of the number of women harmed in such conflicts, let alone to verify individual accounts. In Ukraine, the evidenced level of sexual violence has turned out to be far lower than initially reported. Kyiv sacked its ombudsperson for human rights, Lyudmyla Denisova, in May 2022, for inflating the numbers and harming Ukraine’s credibility.

There were indisputably incidences of sexual violence during the Hamas-led attacks of 7 October. (Patten’s report interprets ‘conflict-related sexual violence’ according to the terms of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Penetrative rape is included, alongside sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced marriage, forced pregnancy and ‘any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity’. The report also categorises sexualised torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as sexual violence.) What wasn’t clear was whether rape figured in Hamas’s battle plan, and whether the rapes were committed by Hamas fighters, by fighters who joined them from other organisations, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or by the civilians who had flooded southern Israel in the aftermath of the attacks. It was both a tightly planned military operation and a riot, both chaotic and lethal: determining the precise number of cases, their exact nature, the identity of the perpetrators and whether the acts were systematic or opportunistic has so far proved extremely difficult. This is in part a result of the challenges inherent to the crime scenes and the way in which the evidence was handled, but also because Israel has denied access to the independent UN bodies that are legally capable and mandated to investigate.

There are no living survivors of sexual violence known to any independent experts and there are only four eyewitnesses, one of whom isn’t now generally regarded as credible. Patten says in her report that she was ‘made aware of a small number of survivors’ of sexual violence, but that they are undergoing care for trauma, haven’t given statements and weren’t able to meet with her team. As far as the number of women affected is concerned, both the Patten report and a forthcoming report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) have verified several cases that meet their own standards of proof (the HRW report, which will be published this summer, will not give precise numbers of cases). One woman among the hostages released to date, a lawyer called Amit Soussana, has described being subjected to a sexual assault and severe beatings at the hands of a guard during the nearly two months she spent in captivity. In a piece published in the New York Times on 26 March, Soussana said that a guard called Muhammad waited for her period to be over before putting his ‘gun to my face’ and forcing her ‘to commit a sexual act on him’.

In the absence of an investigation by a legally mandated UN body, the Patten report stands as the reference point for understanding the sexual violence of 7 October. Patten gave an indication of what it is possible to verify in her press briefing: ‘I don’t have numbers. One case is more than enough, and I didn’t go on a bookkeeping exercise. The first letters that I received from the government of Israel talked about hundreds if not thousands of cases, and I have not found anything like that.’

The main independent body that has the legal capacity to investigate questions of scale and intent is being kept off the case. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Palestinian Occupied Territories and Israel, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, has been described by Erdan as ‘terror-supporting’ and steeped in ‘Jew-hatred’. Two Israeli organisations have reported on what happened: Physicians for Human Rights Israel and the Association of Rape Crisis Centres. Both described the challenges posed by the condition of the bodies. The findings of both groups are incomplete: Physicians for Human Rights Israel doesn’t attempt to meet legal thresholds, and the Association of Rape Crisis Centres relies in part on sources it doesn’t disclose or include, though it refers to ‘first-hand accounts’, implying it had access to survivors.

The attacks on 7 October took place in several locations: the towns and kibbutzim of the southern Gaza envelope, the Nova rave, one military outpost and two highways, Road 232 and Road 242. Hamas fighters, along with fighters from other militant Palestinian factions, streamed across the fence into Israeli territory. They murdered 375 soldiers and almost eight hundred civilians, including women, children, migrant workers and Bedouins, and took 253 hostages, around a hundred of them women and girls. Families were killed in their homes and corpses defiled and mutilated. Many of the bodies were charred. Militants lit fires inside homes and fired grenades at buildings; the Israeli military returned fire from Apache helicopters and tanks. Much of the killing was filmed on body cameras, and some footage has been released by Hamas and other fighters. Between this footage and video taken on survivors’ mobile phones, there is an extraordinary amount of visual documentation of the attacks as they unfolded. There is some content that shows the dehumanising treatment of dead bodies, but no records or footage showing rape.

The scale of the massacre was overwhelming. The military dispatched the first responder group Zaka to collect the bodies, as it always does after bombings or attacks of this kind. Zaka is an ultra-Orthodox volunteer group whose chief concern is religious: it aims to locate bodies and return them to families as quickly as possible for ritual burial. Zaka members have no forensics training and do not document their work. As the scale of the attacks became clear, military personnel trained in collecting and identifying human remains became increasingly unhappy that they were not being deployed. Zaka volunteers combed the area, collecting body pieces haphazardly. At Shura, a military base that became an identification centre, trained officers received bag after bag of unsorted remains. There were ‘bags with two skulls, bags with two hands, with no way to know which was whose’, a volunteer told Haaretz.

Witnesses – also according to Haaretz – said that some Zaka volunteers appeared to court journalists and shared photographs on social media. Some horrific – and later discredited – claims, such as the discovery of beheaded babies, can be traced back to Zaka. Yossi Landau, who runs Zaka’s Southern Region, described his method of determining what had happened to the victims: ‘When we go into a house, we’re using our imagination. The bodies are telling us the stories that happened to them.’ In a video released by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, called ‘Eyewitness Accounts of Sexual Violence against Israeli Women on 7 October’, a Zaka volunteer says: ‘The walls, the stone, shouted, “I was raped.”’ Haaretz sources argued that the military should have adjusted its protocol, given the scale of the attack. As one researcher told me, ‘Zaka destroyed the crime scene. It was wild that they sent them in to do this. In hindsight, it was the worst decision they made.’

By the time bodies reached the police, the inexpert way they had been collected, the severe injuries the victims had suffered, together with delays and a lack of forensic pathologists, again according to Haaretz, made it difficult to carry out rape forensics (the paper said in November that the tests that were conducted did not show evidence of sexual assault). The undocumented collection, along with the scale of casualties, made the task of matching bodies to locations exceedingly hard, which means that physical evidence could not easily be used to confirm eyewitness accounts.

At the same time​ , though far less discussed, the Israeli onslaught against Gaza, and against Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, has exposed women to sexual and reproductive harm on a significant scale. Hundreds of Palestinian women have been detained in Israeli custody since 7 October, some of whom have been subjected to sexualised abuse (including sexualised torture, naked beatings and blows to genitalia, the use of degrading stress positions and threats of rape, and in two verified instances, rape itself). It is estimated that fifty thousand women in Gaza were pregnant when the war began: since then, many of them have miscarried or had stillbirths. Since proper medical care is non-existent, women often go into labour in the dark of a tent encampment, aided by mobile phone flashlights, or undergo C-sections without anaesthesia. Even before Israel’s starvation campaign reached famine levels, insufficient calories and continual bombardment made it difficult for women to breastfeed. A UN team recently found that no babies of normal weight are being born in Gaza. Many babies, the World Health Organisation said in March, are ‘simply dying’. In ‘A Zone of Silence: Obstetric Violence in Gaza and Beyond’, the legal scholar and former UN special rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin writes that

While the international community should positively affirm the importance of addressing rape in war, the overwhelming focus on penetrative sexual violence (rape) forces attention away from other serious gender-based harms that are widely experienced by women during hostilities. It is critical to evaluate how the severity and cost of this often unseen violence causes the same or greater brutality to women’s bodies and lives, a proposition that few policymakers or states have been prepared to take seriously even as they ‘talk the talk’ about ‘protecting’ women in war.

Maternal protections remain a ‘low-to-zero priority’, Ní Aoláin adds, ‘entirely at the sidelines of global political conversations’ about the legal obligations regarding women in war. It was significant, in this context, that obstetric violence against Palestinian women was invoked by South Africa in its submission to the International Court of Justice, though the relevant passage of the Geneva Convention concerns attacks on the population rather than harm to women: it bans ‘measures intended to prevent births within the group’.

Israel can designate citizens of Gaza ‘unlawful combatants’, a category created by the US during the war on terror which renders people without rights. For Palestinian women in Gaza, this means delayed or limited access to lawyers or legal protections, and disappearance into military sites and off-grid detention centres that cannot be visited by outside observers. Milena Ansari, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told me that the sexualised abuse of Palestinian women during interrogation in Israeli detention has been known to take place for decades. Now, as one soldier told a blindfolded detained woman in late October, according to a report by the Independent Commission for Human Rights Palestine, ‘it’s war and we can do whatever we want to you. You’re a prisoner of war.’ In a letter to Israel asking for visitation access to the country, the UN’s special rapporteur for violence against women, Reem Alsalem, along with two other UN bodies mandated by the Human Rights Council, expressed serious concerns about credible reports of threatened and actual sexual violence and assault, including two rapes, against Palestinian women and girls who had been detained in Gaza and the West Bank since 7 October. (The two rape cases drew on corroborated information from multiple sources.) She told me the discrepancy in Western governments’ reactions to reports of sexual violence against Israeli women as compared with Palestinian women was undoing years of advocacy on the protection of women during conflict. ‘It is not helpful not to have the same level of outrage,’ she said. ‘It undermines the legitimacy of the discourse.’

The increase​ in the number of Palestinian women in Israeli custody since 7 October has been accompanied by an intensification of sexual assault and abuse in detention, according to Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. At least two hundred women have been arrested in Gaza, and human rights groups estimate that Israel is currently detaining 147 women and 245 children of both sexes in the West Bank. ‘What reaches us is just a fragment of what’s happening on the ground,’ Albanese said. ‘The fact that these numbers come out so massively, as Israeli organisations themselves say, gives us a sense that these patterns of abuse have become systematic.’

Recent reports by three major Israeli rights groups, including the Public Committee against Torture in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights Israel and B’Tselem, all of them based on the protocols adopted at legal hearings, legal complaints, lawyer documentation and detainee testimony, describe abuse as a feature of Israeli detention, in what they allege is a breach of the international legal prohibitions of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. A report by the Jerusalem-based Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling in February says that all the Palestinian women who spoke to the centre had received threatening phone calls from Israeli officials after their release. The callers identified themselves as ‘Captain Diyab’, ‘Captain Hakam’ or ‘Captain Nimer’ and ‘warned the women that they would be returned to prison or that harm would be inflicted on their incarcerated family members if they disclosed their experiences’. The pressure to remain silent comes from Palestinians too. One feminist blogger who recounted the naked strip search of a woman detainee from Hebron was asked by the woman’s family to delete the account. The detainee had begun to receive threats that, according to her sister, did not come from Israeli authorities. The fear that reporting, sharing or officially acknowledging sexual violence against Palestinian women by Israeli forces could fuel Israel’s expulsion of the Gazan population had become widespread, as the Palestinian researcher Feras Abu Helal noted in early April.

The Women’s Centre report, which was based on the testimony of multiple women prisoners, gives a picture of the inhumane treatment of Palestinian women in Israeli detention that is underlined by reports by other Israeli, Israeli-Palestinian and Palestinian rights groups. Ahed Tamimi reported that she was stripped and beaten across her body as she lay on the floor of a bathroom. Hanan Barghouti described seeing two other female prisoners beaten on their genitalia, ‘the blood was oozing and the colour of their bodies was blue.’ She was herself groped and assaulted while blindfolded, ‘these grabs made me scream at the top of my lungs, telling them to leave me, to stay away from me, not to touch me.’ Multiple women, in this report and in a joint submission to the UN by Israeli and Palestinian rights groups, describe invasive strip searches, with detainees being kept naked for long periods, asked to open their legs and hold degrading positions, while male guards looked on, fondled themselves or threatened rape. Women reported being forced to strip and stand naked in front of an Israeli flag. They also reported that soldiers took degrading pictures of them and put them online. Such photographs are a form of blackmail. One woman said the soldiers told her: ‘No one will marry you, no one will touch you after they see what we did to you.’

Since 7 October, Israeli prisons and detention centres have closed their commissaries, the only place where detained Palestinian women can buy sanitary towels. (In blockaded Gaza itself, women are very unlikely to find any towels to buy, whether they’re in custody or not.) In the West Bank, menstrual bleeding has become leverage for the interrogation room. Soldiers forbid women from using the bathroom until they have signed a confession. Milena Ansari told me that one woman reported having been mocked as she sat bleeding: ‘Look at you, you’re disgusting, how old are you?’ This should not come as a surprise. The exploitation of ‘honour’ and the taboos concerning the bodies of Palestinian women has been part of Israeli strategy for decades. (The military has also used this tactic extensively against LGBTQ Palestinians, particularly gay men, almost all of whom keep their sexuality secret.)

Sexual violence against Palestinian women has often been obscured by a pattern of denial, perpetuated not only by Israel’s defenders but by some of its critics, including Palestinians who are reluctant, for reasons of faith, politics or community, to discuss the violation of women. Over the last thirty years, international criminal law has made a concerted effort to deal with war rape, creating new legal language and provisions for its prosecution (and, ideally, prevention), and this has had the unintended effect, as Ní Aoláin writes, of driving ‘attention away from other serious gender-based harms’ that women experience in conflict. With key spaces at the UN and substantial amounts of humanitarian assistance budgets now devoted to preventing or investigating rape, conflicts where women experience other forms of sexual and reproductive harms are seen as less deserving of support from Western governments. Inevitably, media attention often focuses on women targeted by America’s enemies (and overlooks sexual violence by state militaries and counterterrorism forces which are US allies, although their conduct often aggravates or sparks conflicts). Some contemporary conflicts in which rape has figured significantly, such as in Tigray in Ethiopia, have been largely ignored, because the perpetrators have little geopolitical relevance.

For many Palestinian women, especially young women and political activists, sexualised abuse was part of life under occupation long before 7 October: being called a whore and strip-searched at checkpoints on the way to work or school; being pulled out of bed and dragged barefoot through the streets, wearing nightclothes and without a headscarf; being held up at a checkpoint while pregnant, or forced to give birth behind a checkpoint wall; being subjected to invasive and degrading strip searches during detention; facing the sexual blackmail of isqat, ‘the downfall’, where images or video footage showing women undressed or in degrading positions, were used to extract a confession or collaboration.

The threat​ of sexual violence, actual and psychological, has loomed over the Arab-Israeli conflict since its earliest days. In April 1948, Zionist militias attacked the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, killing more than a hundred civilians. Stories of what happened on that day, particularly the accounts of sexual abuse and rape, spread among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians whose ancestral villages and towns faced the same imminent threat. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the slogan ‘land before honour’ started to be used. If the fear of dishonour had contributed to Palestinian dispossession, then a collective change of consciousness was needed. The new slogan indicated to women, according to the Palestinian scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, that ‘they were not to fear the militarised sexual abuse rampant under the Israeli occupation because national liberation was and remains more important than women’s “honour” or the victimisation that follows on sexual abuse.’ (Shalhoub-Kevorkian was recently arrested, and later released, on charges of incitement for her work on and denunciations of the Gaza war.)

Within Israel itself, different forms of harm now threaten women in a society at war. According to Ruchama Marton, the founder of Physicians for Human Rights Israel, there has been ‘a rise in violence against women both in the domestic sphere and in the social one’. The Israel Observatory on Femicide has suggested that domestic violence increased in the aftermath of 7 October. At the end of October, the Israeli security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, went round distributing guns to civilians. ‘I’m telling you, dear citizens,’ he told the crowd in one town, ‘a handgun can save a family, a rifle can save an entire building.’ His ministry has loosened the rules on private gun ownership, making it easier for ordinary Israelis, even those with a record of domestic violence, to buy one. Private ownership has soared. There is considerable research that shows correlations between domestic abuse and access to guns in conflict settings. In Conflict-Related Violence against Women (2018), Aisling Swaine describes ‘continuities in violence’ between the public and private spheres in a country at war, from the frontline to the home and back again. She also points out that conflict law, which recognises war rape but not, for example, increased spousal violence, doesn’t adequately encompass women’s experience in countries at war, where violence is an ‘ever present, contextually dependent and fluctuating force’ in their lives.

In early February, Israeli police at a Knesset meeting on the ‘status of women and gender equality’ said they were investigating several cases of rape and domestic violence in hotels housing the tens of thousands of women and children displaced after 7 October. Of 116 police files, there were forty cases of reported domestic violence, ‘some’ extremely serious, including instances of rape and sexual assault. The Association of Rape Crisis Centres described a telephone call from one woman ‘saying she had been raped by a man who was evacuated to the hotel with her’. A hotline for Palestinian women in Israel has reported receiving hundreds of calls from women experiencing abuse at home, or unfair dismissal or denial of their rights at work, who didn’t feel it was safe to call the Israeli police. In Gaza itself, as well as the West Bank, according to Lina AbiRafeh, domestic violence has almost certainly increased, but the political and cultural context – the idea that it’s wrong to complain about women’s issues during a time of national struggle – makes accurate reporting impossible. The desire not to fuel the dehumanisation of Palestinian men also inhibits talk of increased violence at home. ‘It’s such an important part of the Israeli narrative to portray themselves as a bastion of gender equality and human rights, women getting to serve in the military, an LGBTQ safe space, while the other side is portrayed as primitive, in fact bestial, in how it treats its women,’ AbiRafeh told me. ‘This is a false narrative that serves to fuel the genocide.’

As we have seen in Ukraine and elsewhere, the spectre of mass rape and the indiscriminate killing of civilians has helped bolster approval for the war among Israelis. It has also informed the behaviour of the IDF in Gaza. A genre of conquest selfies has emerged, showing Israeli soldiers, their tongues hanging out, holding up women’s underwear or stringing it up on bedroom walls or across tanks. One soldier posted an image like this on a dating site. (The IDF has been struggling with sexual harassment and assault in its own ranks; according to the Jerusalem Post, in 2020, 1552 complaints yielded only 31 filed indictments.) Palestinian women detainees have described Israeli interrogators shouting at them about the ‘Hamas rapes’ and threatening to do to them ‘what they did to our women’.

A Western defence official I spoke to described the promotion of the mass rape narrative as a ‘military communications strategy’ intended to keep up morale in the army, especially among reservists. ‘They must feel a real anger and see civilians as non-humans, they must dehumanise them and view [7 October] as the worst thing after the Shoah. They need these stories.’ Marton made a similar point: ‘They are trying to use these rape stories, the correct ones and the fake ones, in order to gain something. And it is not the well-being of women … They are using those poor women, to use their misery and what they endured, in this moment, in a way that does not consider women’s needs and benefits.’ The ‘over-consideration’ of rape, as Marton puts it, has been used to galvanise public opinion against a ceasefire: ‘It is hard for me to say it, but it fuels the revenge and hatred, they go together now, there is not one first and then the second, they are almost one thing. To get the army and public to see that Hamas contaminated our women and revenge is needed. That is the main feeling or atmosphere in Israel now. It is a war of revenge, a war of hatred, and in this atmosphere, the women’s rape is critical. This country is dominated by men and this is exactly the language they understand. It fuels the war machine.’

By mid-November,​ Israel was devoting its diplomatic energy at the UN to blocking a ceasefire and attacking UN Women, the agency for gender equality, which it claimed had failed to condemn Hamas for using sexual violence. Erdan tweeted that UN Women had ‘lost every shred of moral credibility’ and had ‘forfeited its right to exist’. Activists and women’s groups joined the campaign, as did overnight sexual violence experts such as Sheryl Sandberg. Protesters showed up outside the UN building in New York dressed in nude bodysuits with red paint splattered between their legs. Social media campaigns sprang up (#Hamas_Raped_MeToo) targeting UN Women and other prominent figures – Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey, Malala Yousafzai – for their ‘silence’ (all three had openly sympathised with women on both sides).

Some of Israel’s American advocates characterised UN Women as a tone-deaf bureaucratic blob, charged with protecting women but unable to acknowledge the harm that had been inflicted on Israeli women. An official from UN Women, Sarah Hendriks, appeared on CNN. ‘Is there a reason why you can’t specifically call out Hamas?’ the presenter asked. Hendriks explained that ‘within the UN family, these investigations are led by the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights’ and that her agency didn’t have the legal competence to determine culpability: ‘The Independent International Commission of Inquiry … has the mandate to investigate all alleged violations.’ Two days later, Kayleigh McEnany, a Fox News host and former Trump staffer, responded: ‘I’m sorry, don’t give me that BS … What about when Russia invaded Ukraine? You [UN Women] were able to say rape, usually gang rape, sexual torture, nudity and other forms of abuse … You didn’t need an independent investigation. You only needed it when it was Jewish women being raped.’

This was untrue. UN Women has not inveighed against conflict-related sexual violence in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Colombia or Mali, and its condemnations of rape in the DRC, Central African Republic, Syria and Iraq came years after the events themselves. Where it has responded more swiftly (and then only within months), it has done so in places where the UN had teams on the ground investigating and documenting abuses, or as a result of UN-wide appeals. UN Women has never named a specific group or perpetrator. According to its own protocols, it has been vociferous in responding to 7 October – as many as eight times in the first two months – through statements, social media posts and session remarks.

What was being demanded of it was something new: to go beyond its mandate and name and condemn alleged perpetrators of sexual violence before a proper investigation had been carried out and without co-ordination with the UN bodies mandated to do this work. If it had done so, it would have damaged its relationship with the huge array of grassroots women’s groups who see UN Women as the last place in the organisation where civil society and women’s groups from the Global South still have a voice. The call to condemn Hamas ‘was a trap, like the one laid out for the university presidents’, one UN official told me.

On 1 December, UN Women put out a statement aiming to reconcile these competing demands. It carefully and ‘unequivocally’ condemned the ‘brutal attacks by Hamas on Israel’ and called for ‘all accounts of gender-based violence to be duly investigated and prosecuted’. All women, the statement went on, ‘are entitled to a life lived in safety and free from violence’. No one was appeased. Erdan’s tweets after the statement was released again mischaracterised the role of UN Women and denounced the ‘so-called condemnation’ as ‘yet another moral stain on the UN and its organisations’.

By this point, Patten had written to Israel accepting an invitation to go there on a fact-finding mission. That letter, she says, was delivered in late November. On 5 December, Israel had yet to reply with a timetable, but Erdan spent the day hosting a special session to ‘raise awareness’ of what he called Hamas’s ‘premeditated’ mass rape strategy. It was a major event, complete with a video address by Hillary Clinton and a presentation by Sheryl Sandberg (who admitted she was ‘not an expert’, but went on to brief the British Parliament, the French National Assembly and the German Foreign Ministry).

The next day, Secretary General António Guterres for the first time in his tenure used the most powerful tool available to a UN leader, invoking Article 99 of the UN Charter to urge the Security Council to demand a ceasefire. Article 99 has only been invoked a handful of times, the last in 1989, in a bid to halt the bloodshed in Lebanon. Guterres warned of the impending collapse of Gaza’s ‘humanitarian system’ and of the consequences of the forcible mass displacement of its population. Hospitals had become battlegrounds, he said, and there was ‘no effective protection of civilians’. Six days later, the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a (non-binding) resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Many of the statements by global women’s groups in the days and weeks after the 7 October attacks were vehement in tone. On 13 October, the Nobel Women’s Initiative (a women’s rights group founded by six women peace laureates) denounced the Hamas attacks, as well as Israel’s declaration of war, and called on the ICC to investigate the ‘violations and war crimes that were committed’ and for action to be taken against ‘states which fuel militarism, including those who fund and arm Hamas and other militant groups, notably Iran’. It added that the ‘context and root causes of the escalating violence must be acknowledged, including the long-standing illegal and inhumane occupation of Palestinian territories’.

In December,​ the New York Times published a long investigative piece by Jeffrey Gettleman, headlined ‘“Screams without Words”: How Hamas Weaponised Sexual Violence on 7 October’, which made sweeping claims about systematic patterns of rape, relying heavily on statements by Israeli officials, who said that women had been brutalised ‘everywhere Hamas terrorists struck’. Gettleman describes himself as a ‘specialist in despair’ and a journalist ‘in the empathy-generation business’, whose job is ‘not just to inform, but to move people’. The newspaper hired two people to work with him on the story, neither of whom had any serious journalistic experience. Both shared the byline with him. One was Adam Sella, a recent Harvard graduate; the other was Anat Schwartz, the partner of Sella’s uncle and a documentary filmmaker. On social media, Schwartz had expressed support for Gaza being turned ‘into a slaughterhouse’. The main criticisms of the story concern Gettleman’s reliance on sources who have been since discredited, or whose accounts are so inconsistent as not to be credible, and the use of pressure and misrepresentation by his colleagues to gain access to sources. Some of the claims made in the piece have subsequently been disproved, for example that of two sexual assaults in Kibbutz Be’eri (which was rejected by the kibbutz’s spokesperson). The alleged rape of a young woman called Gal Abdoush, memorialised in the article as ‘the woman in the black dress’, was repudiated by her family after publication. Schwartz, the Intercept has since reported, is a former Israeli military intelligence official. In an interview on an Israeli podcast, she said she had been initially reluctant to take on the assignment, conscious she had no experience of reporting on sexual violence.

Many other newspapers, including the Guardian and the Sunday Times, have published similar accounts making similar claims. But none has the same influence on the American public, or on powerbrokers in Europe. After the New York Times article appeared, a French minister threatened to cut funding from women’s groups that failed to speak up and clearly ‘characterise’ Hamas’s use of sexual violence. The German government, a generous donor to women’s groups in the Global South, indicated that its support would be conditional on the tacit acceptance of Israel’s use of aggression. In early November, the German embassy in Cairo had cut funding to the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, a group that works to prevent trafficking and to support women’s rights. The reason given was that the centre’s director, Azza Soliman, had signed a letter (along with the heads of more than 250 other NGOs) calling for a ceasefire and supporting the BDS movement against Israeli occupation. Soliman now finds herself in the novel situation of being condemned by both the German and Egyptian authorities. ‘We are in a decadent and critical historical stage,’ she told an Egyptian news outlet, ‘in which the masks are falling off the faces of all supporters of human rights.’ Other groups have lost their funding or chosen to reject it: Hossam Bahgat, the head of one of Egypt’s most prominent human rights groups, announced that his organisation would no longer work with the German government.

By February, the harm to women from the war was spiralling. Most of Gaza’s population was internally displaced and without sufficient food, water, shelter and medical supplies. The figure of 100,000 or so displaced Israeli women and girls from border areas living in hotels had dwindled to around 25,000, but was more than matched by the number of displaced women and children from the south of Lebanon (around 47,000). In the West Bank, accounts of armed settlers physically assaulting women appeared almost daily.

These accounts did not figure in the discussions which took place that month about women’s wartime security. On 9 February, Columbia University hosted a conference on ‘Preventing and Addressing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence’. Keren Yarhi-Milo, an Israeli-American academic, opened the event by acknowledging that gender inequality is itself a cause of violence and that rape and other forms of gender-based violence can be used as weapons of war. But the maternal harms, sexual assaults and other violence experienced by Palestinian women weren’t discussed by the participants, who included Clinton, Sandberg and the US representative to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Protester after protester interrupted the speakers. One yelled at Clinton: ‘If you were enraged about sexual violence, you’d be talking about the sexual violence in Palestine and the sexual violence that [women] endure daily.’ In response, Clinton asked that the protesters get their disruption out of the way, so the panellists – ‘the real experts in this area’ – could speak. Thomas-Greenfield assured the audience that ‘there is no issue related to sexual violence … anywhere in the world that we’re not concerned about.’ Gettleman appeared alongside Sandberg and seemed hesitant about defending the factual basis of his story: ‘What we found – I don’t want to even use the word “evidence” because evidence is almost like a legal term that suggests you’re trying to prove an allegation or prove a case in court.’

Women’s groups in the Global South face a difficult choice. If they speak out against Israel’s violence in Gaza and the West Bank, they risk their funding, but if they don’t, they undermine their legitimacy. Sussan Tahmasebi, the head of the women’s group Femena, told me that the real crisis was the loss of legitimacy that women’s groups rely on, and which constitutes the ethical and legal foundation of their work. As Western governments lose their credibility with Global South publics, so too do the groups that are closely aligned with them.

By the first week of March, when Patten issued her report, nine thousand Palestinian women had been killed by Israeli bombs and gunfire (by mid-April, that number had reached ten thousand). Many more are still uncounted, their bodies buried under the rubble. At Israel’s urging, the Security Council convened a special session to discuss Patten’s report. She insisted that her findings constituted a moral imperative for ceasefire, and warned that sexual violence should never be used as a tool to ‘legitimise further violence in the region’ or ‘to serve wider political or military ends’. The dismissal of her reports concerning the plight of Palestinian women in detention and at checkpoints was, she added, very disappointing. The war has made clear the partition of women’s bodies, the assignment of relative worth based on which group they belong to; the focus on the suffering of one group, while the suffering of the other is silenced or denied. This is a problem that no act of ‘reporting’, no ‘fact-finding mission’, can resolve.

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