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UN Women finally condemn Hamas rapes

Eetta Prince-Gibson
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UN Women finally condemn Hamas rapes

Published: 5 December 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

While there are plausible reasons for the delay, the impact has been to minimise the sexual violence of the October 7 attacks and abandon Israeli women. 

The October 7 massacre by Hamas led to the death of at least 1,200 Israelis and some foreigners, As more evidence becomes available, the scope and extent of rape and sexual abuse by Hamas leaves no room for doubt: Hamas used gender-based violence as a weapon of war, and thus perpetrated both war crimes and crimes against humanity. Hamas also took some 250 captives, including women, children, and infants, from Israel into Gaza and is still holding about 140, which also constitute international crimes.

Yet, despite what Israeli women view as incontrovertible evidence, the lack of response by international women’s institutions and agencies, and especially those of the UN, has left them feeling abandoned and betrayed. And while there have been some responses in the past few days, most feminists continue to feel that even these are too little, too late.

In the days immediately following October 7, Israeli feminist organisations began collecting testimonies and evidence about sexual and gender-based violence.  Initially working ad hoc, they quickly realised that the task was logistically and emotionally almost overwhelming. 

In response, Cochav Elkayam-Levy, of the Department of International Relations at Hebrew University, established the Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas against Women and Children as an NGO to gather evidence, and testimonies about the sexual violence, and ultimately, compile a data base of the crimes. 

“We are collecting every kind of evidence that we can,” Elkayam-Levy told The Jewish Independent Media.  “Some of the material is so horrific, especially the material taken from the videos that the murders took, that I cannot always find the words to describe. 

“The evil elation that these murderers expressed, their joyful elation as they so-cruelly tortured and murdered these women – how can we even begin to cope with all of this? But we owe it to the victims, and to women everywhere, to do this documentation.”

"The evil elation these murderers expressed – how can we even begin to cope with all of this?"

Elkayam-Levy is a lawyer and scholar of international law, gender, and human rights. “I have the training for this work, but I really never even imagined that this expertise would come together in documenting the horrific use of rape other gender-based violence as tools of war against Israeli women.”

Throughout history, women’s bodies have been weaponised during war.  Rape has been seen as a “reward” for the soldiers and an assertion of their “manhood” over the manhood of their enemy.  Since in many societies women’s bodies are seen as a representation of the body of the nation, defiling women’s bodies is seen as a way to terrorise the entire enemy society.

Feminists struggled for many years to generate recognition of rape and gender-based violence as war crimes, and view this recognition as a universal assertion of women’s rights. 

Statements issued by Hamas military and religious leaders, and testimonies given by Hamas terrorists captured by Israel on October 7, prove that they were commanded to commit these atrocities and meet the criteria for war crimes. For all these reasons, Israeli feminists find it extremely difficult to understand the lack of, and then tepid-at-best, responses, especially by UN Women, the senior international organisation for the defence of women.  

Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, who served for 12 years on the UN Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, told The Jewish Independent that she felt “completely betrayed” by the international women’s rights organisations with whom she has worked for years.

On October 11 – four days after the massacre and hostage taking – UN Women issued a statement that condemned “the attacks on civilians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories” and declared that International Law and Human Rights Law must be respected and upheld.” 

Statements issued on October 27 and November 5 failed to mention the kidnappings, and the latter only details the situation in Gaza. On November 11, the agency reported on how women and girls in Gaza have endured attacks and displacement since October 7, while once again failing to report on the hostages.

In the past few days, there has been some movement towards recognition of the extent of the gender-based violence against Israeli women. Last week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres  called for what he described as “numerous accounts of sexual violence during the abhorrent acts of terror by Hamas” to be “vigorously investigated.”

Israeli and American-Jewish women leaders intend to protest in front of the UN in early December.

In late November, for the first time, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Karim Khan, visited Israel and declared that he had “reason to believe that “actions defined as crimes according to international law were committed by Hamas on that day.

And on December 1, UN Women finally issued a statement condemning the violence of October 7.

The statement reads, “We deeply regret that military operations have resumed in Gaza, and we reiterate that all women, Israeli women, Palestinian women, as all others, are entitled to a life lived in safety and free from violence.

“We unequivocally condemn the brutal attacks by Hamas on Israel on October 7. We are alarmed by the numerous accounts of gender-based atrocities and sexual violence during those attacks. This is why we have called for all accounts of gender-based violence to be duly investigated and prosecuted, with the rights of the victim at the core.”

Israeli and American-Jewish women leaders remain unimpressed and intend to protest in front of the UN in early December, demanding the immediate return of women and children hostages, as well as condemning those who fail to forcefully decry the use of sexual violence against Israeli women.

"These are bodies whose raison d'etre is to protect, to promote, to fulfil women and to protect them from violence, all women, in all places of the world, regardless of nationality, of race, of religion,” Elkayam-Levy said.

A former UN senior official, with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of UN Women and other UN agencies, agreed to speak with The Jewish Independent Media, on condition of anonymity.

They point to several possible explanations for the lack of response, some logistic and some more substantive.

First of all, they note that, unlike the Palestinian territories and Gaza, but like the US, Israel, and other Western countries are not considered “program areas” for UN Women. “Basically, the organisation trusts countries like Israel to conduct investigations into gender-based violence within its borders – and so, ironically and sadly, they are really not prepared, and do not have anyone on the ground, to investigate large-scale abuse against Israeli women.

"These are bodies whose raison d'etre is to promote and fulfil women, and protect them from violence."

Cochav Elkayam-Levy

Furthermore, they notes, UN Women and other similar international agencies are bound by procedures and protocols. As Sarah Hendriks, Deputy Executive Director for UN Women, noted in an interview on November 28 on CNN’s flagship program, Amanpour: “UN Women always supports impartial, independent investigations into any serious allegations of gender-based or sexual violence."

But paradoxically, continues the source, one of its globally mandated mechanisms for investigation includes interviews of survivor witnesses. It would appear that few women survived Hamas’s rapes and murders – and if there are those who did, they have not come forward and may not be able to do so for years, if ever, due to the trauma.

Furthermore, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, necessary evidence was not systematically collected, partly because bodies were brought together for burial as soon as possible, in accordance with Jewish law.

Finally, they note that Israel, like the US, has often positioned itself as distant, even aloof, from UN and other international programs. For example, Israel does not recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction and has maintained a policy of not cooperating with it. Thus, although Israeli authorities did permit ICC Chief Prosecutor Khan to visit Israel, the visit could not be considered official.

Yet, after presenting these explanations, the source summed up their assessment by saying, “these are real reasons, but they are not good enough. In the end, the international human rights community, including the UN, has failed Israeli women.”


UN Women finally condemns Hamas attacks, sexual violence on October 7 (Jerusalem Post)

FM Cohen: UN Women’s condemnation of Hamas attacks ‘tepid and late,’ chief should quit (Times of Israel)

The scope of Hamas' campaign of rape against Israeli women is revealed, testimony after testimony (Haaretz)

Whatever your view of the Israel-Hamas war, rape is rape. To trivialise it is to diminish ourselves (Guardian)

About the author

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, was previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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