The evidence – and silence – was there from the beginning. With Israel, and the world, still reeling from the 7 October attack on southern Israel, horrific footage and snippets of testimony emerged: the young woman filmed being taken on to a truck, her trousers soaked in blood around the groin; semen found on a dead woman’s body; another female body paraded naked by militants.
And yet, in the days following the attack, as the bodies piled up in Israeli morgues and a bloody Gaza offensive began, there was little discussion of how the massacre seemed to involve not only mass murder, but mass rape. The offensive was unprecedented in its scale and brutality compared with past Palestinian terror attacks. The perpetration of sexual assault was also highly unusual. On both sides, sexual violence is rare in this decades-long war.
But the evidence this time was present, and to some it was glaring. In mid-October, Israeli women’s groups signed an open letter calling on UN Women, the organisation’s entity devoted to gender equality, to make a statement about Hamas’s targeting of children and women, including the mounting accounts of sexual violence. Official, global acknowledgement came only weeks later. On 29 November the UN secretary-general António Guterres, and on 1 December UN Women, made public statements about the “numerous accounts” of gender-based violence on that day, and urged further investigation. The chair of a UN commission of inquiry set up to investigate war crimes by Israel and Hamas said on 30 November that it will focus on gathering evidence of sexual violence.
This belated attention owes much to the work of civil society groups in Israel, where a civil commission was established to collect evidence and testimonies, including from survivors who witnessed rape. Israeli groups spent weeks lobbying the UN for recognition of what happened that day. Physicians for Human Rights Israel, an NGO, published a position paper in November that gathered all publicly available reports. It concludes that the evidence for widespread sexual violence during the attack is overwhelming. Israeli security forces have also collected testimony from militants captured and questioned after the attack. Physicians for Human Rights Israel also suggests that rape might have been part of the attack plan, because of its seemingly systematic occurrence. A number of in-depth reports have been published, too, each one harrowing to read – notably by Israel’s daily newspaper Haaretz, the Sunday Times, and the BBC.
Gathering physical evidence of rape is difficult even in mundane circumstances. But considering the carnage of the crime scenes, the sheer volume of casualties, and the focus in the aftermath on collecting bodies for identification and burial, rather than collecting DNA samples and concrete evidence of sexual violence, it is even harder.
It would be a generous reading for this to explain why the UN took so long to speak out about various accounts of sexual violence that day. And it might explain why the Israeli government has only now become more vocal about this aspect of the Hamas attack. On 5 December, after much lobbying from Israeli women’s groups, the country’s UN delegation hosted an event in New York to highlight accounts of rape, with the participation of “lean-in” feminist and former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, and a video message by Hillary Clinton. On the same day, the Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy described Hamas as a “rapist regime” in his daily press briefing. And the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a press conference a couple of days later: “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?” On social media, the Israeli foreign ministry reportedly kickstarted the hashtag “BelieveIsraeliWomen”, while another – “MeTooUnlessYouAreAJew” – has also been used by both women’s groups and those who support the war in Gaza.
Such bellicose statements, and the co-opting of this brutality in trite hashtags, doubly victimises the women who were raped on 7 October. Their suffering, which was first ignored, has been homogenised in order to justify a particular position – or a war – rather than being used as a call for justice. US officials are guilty of this lack of care too. On 4 December, the State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters that it seemed the reason Hamas did not release certain women prisoners during the last ceasefire was that the group didn’t want them to speak publicly about what they had endured in captivity. Given the evidence of sexual violence on 7 October, there is a clear risk that women hostages will have been abused. In fact, on 5 December, at a heated Israeli cabinet meeting between released hostages and families of those still being held in Gaza, one former hostage reportedly said that abductees were being sexually abused in captivity, according to Israeli media.
But Miller’s comment served up a possible living horror for those who either lost loved ones on 7 October or still have loved ones in Gaza. Given with no verification, it amounted to irresponsible speculation – a remark that gave credence to a theory. The following day, when asked about this directly, Miller refused “to speak to what we know about the status of the hostages in Gaza”. For those with female relatives still being held by Hamas (according to Israeli figures, almost 20 women hostages remain in Gaza) the prospect of what could happen to them in captivity is frightening.
The use of combative rhetoric on behalf of rape victims is jarring – as is the sudden adoption of their cause at a time when Israel is haemorrhaging international support over its offensive in Gaza. The thought of how much these victims, from girls to elderly women, suffered in their final moments now silently accompanies our understanding of what happened that day. That this horror has become another layer of the Israeli government’s grisly PR campaign is chilling.
In the background of this exploitation is another betrayal: the denial of the horrors of 7 October playing out online, as people cast doubt on the idea that any sexual violence took place. There are some looking for holes in the available evidence and point to the fact that there is no rape-survivor testimony – even though it’s likely that most victims were killed. Caught in between are women victimised not once, by rape wielded as a weapon of war, not twice, by a government that sees in their suffering an opportunity to justify its actions, but three times – by those who look coldly on and refuse to see the truth.
If there are survivors of what may have been premeditated, systematic rape, historical precedent does not offer much hope that there will be recompense. More than two decades after the Balkan wars, in which tens of thousands of women are thought to have been abused, legislation in those postwar states offers victims compensation – but few perpetrators have been brought to justice.
We don’t know if any of the victims of sexual violence on 7 October survived. But we must respect the victims, alive or dead, and those who witnessed these atrocities. They need time to heal. And their suffering should not be exploited – by allies or enemies.