Israel struggles to discuss October 7 Hamas sexual violence

Friday, 22 December 2023 (13:08 IST)
As Israelis continue to cope with the aftermath of the October 7 attacks by militants aligned with the terror group Hamas, one topic seems almost taboo from the popular press to the highest levels of government: sexual violence.
In many of Israel's TV studios, too, there was no explicit mention that sexual violence had been carried out in the early reports of the attacks, while explicitly mentioning the killing of children and the desecration of bodies. When it came to rape, there were merely hints suggesting that some horrible events had taken place.
"The public conversation is strongly affected by the fact that sexual violence is still taboo in Israel, and the government knows it and acts accordingly," Yael Sherer, the head of Israel's Lobby to Combat Sexual Violence, told DW. She added that officials' unwillingness to name the sexual violence that occurred during the October 7 attacks had helped to fuel rumors on social media.
'They touch women, and everyone knows it'
Hostages released by Hamas have also been reluctant to name the issue, despite making it clear that it occurred. "They touch women," one former hostage told a meeting of the Israeli government, "and everyone knows it." In Hebrew, the term "touch" in this context carries the connotation of sexual violence.
In a textbook example of official allusions, Israel's military chief Herzi Halevi said in early December that "we're worried about our male and female hostages in Gaza, and we also know why" — leaving the "why" unsaid, though not unclear.
Some officials and media outlets have expressed reluctance to name the sexual violence that occurred during the attacks, out of concern for the privacy of victims in a country where people who report rape often find themselves under suspicion.
"There was some sort of fear that Israel as a conservative society will not be able to handle it," said Sherer. "That it's too graphic, that it's inappropriate, that it would shame the victims and their families."
But in the case of the October 7 attacks, there's been none of the usual victim blaming. "You don't get the usual terms like 'she wanted it, she seduced him,'" said Sherer. "In the context of sexual violence against men, no one would suggest they're secretly homosexual, which could help the victims."
Instead, Sherer said, victims have become national symbols — a burden that may prevent many from having the privacy to process the violence. "Because people are interested in your case, you are almost expected to accommodate people," she said, "to provide them with answers and dedicate time for them."
Appeasing religious, conservative Israelis
Sherer said the government's apparent reluctance to deal with the issue could be attributed in part to an official unwillingness to offend the conservative voters who put it in power. Many ultra-Orthodox publications refuse to print photographs of women, and, in at least one incident, the photos of female hostages held in Gaza were removed from a bulletin board in a conservative religious community.
"We're talking about a religious conservative electorate, that in part is not even willing to look at a woman's photo," said Sherer.
Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, the academic director of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women's Status at Bar-Ilan University, told DW that the hard-right coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had begun to consider imposing a separate legal standard for sexual violence perpetrated by Israelis and assaults by Palestinians even before the October 7 attacks.
In July, the government passed a law assigning a heavier punishment to sexual violence with a "nationalist" background than would be applied to cases of domestic assault, a move criticized by The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel.
"When sexual violence is being carried out in the context of conflict, the treatment by the authorities is entirely different," said Halperin-Kaddari.
International response 'weak'
Israeli feminists have worked to raise international awareness of the sexual violence committed by Hamas-aligned militants on October 7 and against hostages in the aftermath. However, many Israelis say they haven't seen much solidarity in the reactions from international organizations.
Sherer called the response from the United Nations "weak."
On October 27, the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) released a statement about the situation condemning "the escalating violence in the Middle East that has killed thousands of civilians, including women and children." But, despite the fact that it was entitled "The cause of peace is the cause of women," it failed to explicitly mention the sexual violence carried out by Hamas on October 7, or even the terror group itself.
"The committee calls upon all parties to systematically address the gender dimension of conflict," the statement said.
Halperin-Kaddari, who previously served at CEDAW for 12 years, said she felt alienated by the UN response to the acts of sexual violence by Hamas.
"I couldn't believe that their statement didn't say anything explicitly: not 'sexual violence,' not 'Israel,' not 'Hamas,'" she said. "It was the most significant hit for me."
UN Women, however, did release a statement explicitly condemning Hamas for their "brutal attacks" on October 7 — just short of two months after the attacks.

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