NEWSLETTER November 2023

Do feminist and human rights groups care about Israeli women?

Like many of you, I’ve been distraught by the news from Israel and Palestine since October 7. The list of horrors and injustice keeps growing. The butchering of civilians by Hamas and other militant groups. The abduction of elderly folks and small children. The murder of beloved Canadian-Israeli peace and women’s rights activist Vivian Silver. Starving, thirsty Gazans forced to flee their homes as 2,000-pound bombs are dropped on dense Gaza neighborhoods. The disregard for Gazans shown by Hamas’ leaders, comfortably sitting in Doha. The terrifying rhetoric of annihilation and dehumanization. The accelerating expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank under the protection of the Israeli army. The plight of the Palestinian people, who for over a hundred years have been inexorably dispossessed of their lands and denied their rights by powerful forces. The possibility that leaders who are even more extreme could succeed Netanyahu in Israel. The fear that Israel will find neither peace nor security no matter how “successful” its current campaign against Hamas is, and will become less democratic, more authoritarian and more militarized. Deadly attacks against Palestinians in the US. Rising antisemitism in the US and Europe.

Amid all this, I’m concerned that one of the gendered dimensions of the crisis— sexual violence—is being used to attack feminist and human rights groups. Over the last few weeks, feminist and human rights groups, along with the UN, have been accused by the Israeli government and other actors of denying and ignoring the sexual violence that Israeli women and girls experienced on October 7. It’s a very serious accusation, but it's unfounded and unfair.

Some background first. Rape and other forms of sexual violence, whether in international or non-international armed conflict, have been prohibited under international humanitarian law since the 1949 Geneva Conventions. But over the years, these crimes were largely ignored by prosecutors and investigators. As a result of a concerted campaign by feminist legal scholars to improve the prosecution of sexual violence in armed conflict, gender-based crimes, which include rape and sexual coercion, were listed as war crimes and crimes against humanity in the 1998 Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Yet the prosecution of these crimes continues to be paltry. As UK jurist Natasha Godsiff reports, “The international criminal law engages sexual and gender-based violence not because it is a crime of violence against women, but because it is an assault on the community. The violation of a woman’s body is therefore ‘secondary to the humiliation of the group’ and ‘relegates women to the role of symbolic embodiments of community.’ This construct of sexual and gender-based violence creates a pattern of gender inequality which perpetuates a gender-biased system of prosecution and accountability in the ICC. In [the ICC’s first 15 years, from 2002 to 2017], only eight cases in this area have reached the trial stage, and only two have led to convictions. In the investigation of crimes, there is a perception that sexual and gender-based violence is too difficult to investigate, due to victims being unreliable or unlikely to testify.”

In fact, sexual violence in situations of armed conflict remains all too common and vastly underreported. The UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict notes that it is often used as a tactic of terrorism by violent extremist groups and armed groups. Its use has been documented in Mali, Nigeria, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. The strategic nature of this violence is evident in the targeting of victims from opposing ethnic, religious, or political groups, such as the raping of the Yazidi community by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or of women and girls of certain communities by Boko Haram in Nigeria. The UN Special Representative notes that survivors are often traumatized twice: first by the actions of the perpetrators, and second by the intense stigma caused by the reaction of society and the State, which is often unresponsive or even punitive and discriminatory.

On October 7, horrifying live streams and photos taken by Hamas and other militants showed several Israeli women beaten, stripped of their clothing or with bloody underwear or trousers. However, the realization that sexual crimes had taken place on a large scale did not emerge until the end of October when Israeli soldiers began describing what they had seen. On November 8, for the first time, Israeli journalist Josh Breiner reported that a civilian witness had described a gang rape and murder at the rave near Kibbutz Re’im. On November 14, Israeli police announced it was launching an investigation into sexual crimes perpetrated on October 7.

How did feminist and human rights groups react? I’ve been closely following the debate in France, where the campaign to denounce feminists has been particularly virulent. On November 10, two days after Breiner's tweet, the Fondation des Femmes publicly and unequivocally condemned all sexual crimes committed by Hamas on October 7, “the evidence of which is beginning to emerge,” and expressed “its total solidarity to the victims and their relatives.” A day later, French feminist NGO We are NOT Weapons of War announced its work to document Hamas’ sexual crimes.

Meanwhile, on November 27, the Israel chapter of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), an international group with a long-standing and distinguished record of investigating mass atrocities, issued a position paper entitled “Sexual & Gender-Based Violence as a Weapon of War.” The paper included a detailed list of the available evidence of the sexual and gender-based crimes committed by Hamas. Based on what was already known, PHR concluded, such atrocities appeared “widespread.” PHR also expressed concern for those still held hostage by Hamas, who it said faced an “ongoing threat” of sexual violence based on “accumulated experience from armed conflicts in other regions and scientific literature on the vulnerability of hostages.”

But, true to its dedication to careful evidence collection, PHR called for “an inquiry [to] be conducted to examine whether the scope and manifestations amount to crimes against humanity under international humanitarian law.” PHR also noted that its paper didn’t rely on videos shared by Israel’s Shin Bet security service, in which terrorists confessed to participating in sexual crimes, “due to severe concern that the interrogations included the use of torture.”

Amnesty International is now conducting a full investigation that will include sexual crimes. Human Rights Watch’s Crisis and Conflict division sent a team to Israel in the days following the October 7 attack to conduct an in-depth investigation into Hamas’ crimes, including sexual crimes. To state that human rights and women’s groups as a whole have been silent or in denial isn’t accurate, even if they have not said everything their critics expect. Granted, not all feminist nor all human rights groups have spoken out—because not all feminist or human rights groups are positioned to speak on these issues. Feminist movements are not monolithic. And some have foregrounded their support for the rights and freedom of Palestinians, a permanent ceasefire, and the end of occupation. That doesn’t mean they condone or deny Hamas' sexual crimes.

Documenting and collecting evidence of crimes of sexual violence takes particular time and care, not least to avoid re-traumatizing surviving victims and witnesses. The World Health Organization recommends that certain protocols be followed to research sexual violence while avoiding harm to survivors. The Israeli hostages who were released will need specialized attention in this respect. Taking care to report solid evidence is especially critical in a highly charged political context. Israeli police say multiple witnesses have come forward so far, and they expect the investigation will last six to eight months.

Unfortunately, their investigation is going to be hampered by the fact that evidence of sexual crimes was not collected when the bodies of the October 7 victims were brought into the emergency morgue at the Shura military base. According to Times of Israel reports, “The decision—made under war footing and a pressing need to identify the dead—to not use time-consuming crime scene investigation protocols to document rape cases has, however, fueled international skepticism over Hamas’ sexual abuse of victims while it held control over parts of southern Israel on October 7.” Moreover, it seems those charged with collecting the bodies had no training in forensic investigation methods. According to Michal Levin Elad, head of the National Forensic Investigative Division of the Israel Police, “the majority of the people who collected the human remains [near the Gaza border] were not trained to gather evidence or preserve crime scenes. Instead, many were from body retrieval service ZAKA or medical organizations Magen David Adom and United Hatzalah, or from the army. All of the forensic investigators in the country came here, to Shura, and the people responsible for collecting the bodies [from the scene] were not forensic investigators.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which oversees the Geneva Conventions, notes that “sexual violence [in armed conflict] continues to be an invisible phenomenon,” and that, where sexual violence is combined with the death of the person, it “can be overlooked or not properly documented and/or reported in fatality statistics or medico-legal documentation; often, medico-legal systems and forensic services are weak or weakened in humanitarian contexts.” It certainly speaks to a lower priority given by governments and humanitarian actors to documenting those crimes. Too time-consuming, right?

Why then did this political controversy about the alleged silence and denial of feminist and human rights groups erupt? In early November, a group of Israeli women’s rights experts came together to form the independent Civil Commission of Oct. 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children “to draw international attention to the crimes of rape and sexual violence committed by Hamas during its October 7 onslaught, and to advocate on behalf of the victims.”

In her November 1 testimony before CEDAW (the UN committee of experts set under the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), Cochav Elkayam-Levy, a women’s rights lawyer and the spokesperson of the Civil Commission, expressed her disappointment that the CEDAW committee had not yet condemned the crimes committed by Hamas.

International experts like CEDAW can play an important role in highlighting and denouncing war crimes, but they need solid evidence. And national governments have a pivotal role to play. It's worth noting that the October 7 commission didn’t direct their ire at the Israeli government, who at that point hadn’t yet launched an investigation. They instead focused on denouncing the alleged silence of UN agencies and feminist and human rights groups on this issue. Michal Herzog, a lawyer and wife of Israeli President Isaac Herzog, joined in on November 22 with a Newsweek op-ed entitled “The Silence From International Bodies Over Hamas’ Mass Rapes Is a Betrayal of All Women.”

These views were quickly amplified by prominent commentators outside Israel, particularly in France and the US. Op-eds were published with hard-hitting titles such as “UN and Women’s Groups Ignore or Deny the Systematic Rape of Israeli Women by Hamas” (The Daily Beast, November 25) or “Israeli Women Count, Too” (Washington Post, November 24). The hashtag #MeTooUnlessUrAJew” took off on X (formerly Twitter). Sheryl Sandberg, of Facebook and “Lean In” fame, posted a video on YouTube entitled “Why are women’s organizations & UN ignoring Israelis who were raped, murdered?” where she urged everyone to recognize that “rape should never be used as an act of war,” suggesting that women’s groups were in fact condoning its use. Cartoons depicting this alleged silence appeared on social media. Ossi Menache and Tammy Rahamimoff, who tweeted the cartoons below, are Israeli diplomats.

At the large, annual demonstration against sexist and sexual violence held on November 25 in Paris, a group even came to the rally with signs that read, “Féminicide de masse, Féministes à la Hamas” (Mass femicide, Hamas-style feminists). A shocking accusation.

Members of the October 7 Civil Commission met with UN Women (the UN agency dedicated to gender equality) on November 22, ahead of a special UN Security Council session on the impact of war on women in Israel and Gaza. They expressed “the most profound criticism possible” to UN Women, according to Elkayam-Levy.

In her speech to the Security Council following her meeting with these activists, UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous (a former Jordanian diplomat) acknowledged the need to investigate the sexual violence committed on October 7, and noted that the UN would be sharing all verified cases of violence with Israeli groups: “UN Women has met with and heard from Israeli women who shared with us that they, and civil society organizations, are working to document gender-based atrocities, and they shared their hope for peace, with women—both Israeli and Palestinian—at the table,” she told the Council. “I am reassured that the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict [Pramila] Patten has activated the UN Action network that she chairs to proactively share UN-sourced and verified information on incidents, patterns, and trends of conflict-related sexual violence to aid all investigations. I am confident that there will ultimately be a reckoning for all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in this conflict.”

Bahous went on to speak about the Israeli campaign against Hamas in Gaza, and its dire impact on women and children: “The ferocity and destruction that the Gazan people are being forced to endure under our watch has reached an intensity we have never seen before,” she said. “I have been consistent in my briefings to you, in reminding you that women and girls are paying the highest price of conflicts. Not only is the number of civilians killed since October 7 twice that of the last 15 years combined, now 67 percent of the more than 14,000 people killed in Gaza are estimated to be women and children.” In a front-page article on November 25, the New York Times confirmed that Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza had so far killed women and children at an unprecedented rate: “… conflict-casualty experts have been taken aback at just how many people have been reportedly killed in Gaza—most of them women and children—and how rapidly.”

Bahous’ speech to the Security Council infuriated Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan, who sharply criticized UN Women after she spoke. I've lobbied and advised UN agencies over many years, and their cautious language (what we called UNese), which arises out of their need to remain in dialogue with many different and not always savory actors, often infuriated us. I get it! But this kind of vitriolic critique seems disingenuous from a UN Ambassador, who would demand a similarly deliberate process of investigation if it were Israel being accused.

That same week, the Israeli Foreign Ministry announced the creation of a national task force to investigate sexual atrocities perpetrated by Hamas on October 7. At last!

French feminists have not taken kindly to these accusations. The organizers of the Paris march against violence held on November 25 have called for these attacks against the feminist movement to stop. They denounced the right-wing media and fake news that had falsely claimed that the march had excluded Jewish feminists who wanted to denounce Hamas’ crimes: “As feminists, we fight with determination against all forms of antisemitism, racism, Islamophobia, and discrimination. That is why we condemn without ambiguity the sexual and sexist crimes, rapes, and femicides committed by Hamas, which particularly targeted women, LGBTQIA+ persons, and children. We offer all our support to the victims and their loved ones.”

French columnist and women’s rights lawyer Elodie Tuaillon-Hibon, in a scathing op-ed published in Mediapart on November 26, took right-wing critics of feminism to task for weaponizing these sexual crimes when they have never stood for women’s rights: “Finally, we are going to be able to exhale and listen and empathize and weep with the women and young girls killed, raped, assaulted, mutilated on October 7, now that the manipulations of the international extreme right to classify feminists as ‘accomplices’ are finally dissipating. We have been fighting for decades without you. We have been surviving for decades without you. Now that the vultures of the ‘antiwoke movement’ have finished their repulsive little dance on the bodies of the women murdered or raped on October 7. Their very, very selective indignation only shows up whenever situations present a putrid political interest, when, in fact, it has nothing to do with the fate of women... Our only country, is that of women from all over the world.”

In feminist solidarity with all victims of sexual violence, and with all activists who have dedicated their lives to this struggle,