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Ignoring the Sexual Violence of October 7 Endangers All Women

November 26, 2023 |

Tamar Herzig, Vice Dean for Research of the Entin Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University explains:

“The cruel sexual violence inflicted on Jewish girls and women in the course of Hamas’ attack on Southern Israel was filmed by body cameras and uploaded to social media by the perpetrators and their collaborators on October 7.

In these videos, the terrorists are heard discussing plans to rape specific girls. They are also seen parading the rape victims that they kidnapped to Gaza, with their clothes ripped off and blood gushing from between their legs. Raped victims who were rescued from the massacre and brought to the Israeli acute response center testified to the assaults that they underwent. Over the next few weeks, forensic evidence collected from bodies of murdered Israeli girls indicated that they, too, had been brutally raped; in some cases, in such a violent manner that their legs and pelvis bones were broken. Survivors of the massacre testified to having witnessed the group raping and cutting off of the breasts of a young Israeli woman. Rescue team members attested to the mutilation of the genitals of murdered Israeli girls who were found stripped naked and covered with blood and semen in their own bedrooms.

All this accumulated evidence, however, did not convince the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), or any other UN body, for that matter, to condemn the horrendous sexual violence meted on Israeli civilians, from girls to elderly women, on October 7.

The statement that the CEDAW finally issued almost two weeks later referred only vaguely to the “gendered dimensions of [the] conflict” between Israelis and Palestinians in general. This statement refrained from explicitly recognizing the mass raping of female Israelis that took place during the massacre of October 7 and—more importantly—from providing the raped Israelis who are still held as hostages in Gaza the urgent medical treatment they require and from protecting them from further sexual assault. The deafening silence of global feminist organizations that were expected to spearhead the acknowledgment of gender-based violence in its most severe manifestations was followed by a denial campaign. This was led by activists such as Samantha Pearson, director of the University of Alberta’s sexual violence center, who disputed the rapes executed by members of Hamas in Israel.

There is, of course, nothing new in discrediting claims of sexual abuse per se. What is astonishing is the willingness of feminist activists and organizations to abandon what came to be regarded as the sacrosanct motto of the #MeToo era: “I believe you.”

How can we explain the fact that those very same women, who would insist on recognizing the sexual harassment of a woman based solely on her claim that she was molested, even in the absence of corroborative evidence, refuse to accept the abundant evidence—including, but certainly not limited to, testimonies of female survivors of the massacre—attesting to the horrific assault on Israeli girls and women?

This is all the more puzzling in light of the important advances in the efforts to redress rape as a prosecutable war crime, over the past thirty years.

The History of Wartime Rape

Wartime rape has a long history; we may trace its early manifestation in the myth of the founding of Ancient Rome, by means of the serial raping of women of the neighboring tribe, known as the Rape of the Sabine Women, in the eighth century BCE. Yet it was only in the wake of the war in Bosnia (in 1992-1994) that the rape of enemy women during armed conflicts became a prosecutable crime and, when perpetuated systematically, also recognized as a crime against humanity. This, as feminist legal historian Catharine MacKinnon reminds us, amounted to the recognition that when a woman is raped, the humanity of a human being is severely violated.

But while it is commonly used as an effective strategy of war, research has shown that rape in armed conflicts is not inevitable and that its frequency and severity vary considerably. In her powerful 2020 book Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: War through the Lives of Women, Christina Lamb reminds us that rape remains the world’s most neglected war crime. When people think about war and when journalists discuss ethnic or national conflicts, what they refer to as ‘casualties’ is those who were killed, not those who were ‘just’ brutally raped. As a form of violence that is targeted primarily at women, wartime rape is easily forgotten and its significance is belittled. In a recent study, I have shown how the brutal group raping of Jewish women from North Africa, who were captured by Italian corsairs in 1610, was intentionally erased from the archival record shortly after it occurred. Then, as now, the intersection of sexual violence, gender, and ethnicity ignited erasure.

Interestingly, Lamb notes the almost complete avoidance of rape in the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from 1948 until 2019. And indeed, before October 7, 2023, the occurrence of rape in this prolonged conflict was so rare, that one anthropological study even focused on the possible causes of its almost complete avoidance. According to American political scientist Elisabeth Jean Wood, it is unlikely that the rarity of known rapes perpetuated by both parties in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict—before the systematic raping of October 7—reflects underreporting, given the intensity of international scrutiny on their behavior. As Wood observes, close monitoring by human rights organizations does not seem to deter both sides in other practices, such as the killing of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers and of Israeli civilians by Palestinian groups and individuals.

The sexual violence that took place on October 7, then, constitutes a dramatic watershed in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, one that should have called for a massive mobilization of feminist outrage. Instead, it has met with silence and discrediting.

Denying its occurrence not only adds to the suffering inflicted on its female victims but also undermines the most significant achievements of global feminism in the last half century, thereby endangering girls and women across the world.”

Tamar Herzig is the Konrad Adenauer Professor of Comparative European History and Vice Dean for Research of the Entin Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University. She is a 2019 laureate of the Kadar Family Award for Outstanding Research


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