Why is Hamas’s sexual violence of October 7th being ignored?

The UN’s International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls on 25 November is a time to face reality: the atrocities of Hamas gunmen in on October 7 included the widespread rape of women and girls.

With most of the rape victims subsequently murdered, a full account may never be possible. Nonetheless, this was a well-documented case of mass sexual violence, partly because the perpetrators filmed and shared their crimes, and partly because of extensive evidence left behind.

One account, from a first responder at Kibbutz Be’eri on 7 October, testifies to finding “piles and piles” of dead women “completely naked” from the waist down, as well as truly horrifying reports of sexual mutilation. Harrowing testimony by Israeli first responders is available here and here.

Israeli police are documenting the evidence and testimony is being gathered by a newly formed Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children, led by Israeli women’s groups and human rights experts.

We do not yet know what further abuses may have been suffered by female captives inside the Gaza Strip. These include young girls, some of them taken alone, and women taken together with their children. At least one Israeli woman is expected to have gone into labour in captivity.

As progressives and humanitarians, we rightly pay particular attention to sexual violence as a weapon of war. It reflects not only the cruelty people inflict on one another, but the cruelty too often perpetrated by men against women.

And yet a month and a half on from this egregious example, there has been a deafening silence from organisations and international agencies whose mission is to address these kinds of crimes.

First and foremost, we might expect a condemnation from Reem Alsalem, who is the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and Girls. Yet despite evidence of sexual violence being broadcast around the world from the first day of the conflict, Alsalem refuses to acknowledge Hamas’s crimes. The best she has managed is a statement expressing “concern about reports of sexual violence that may have occurred since 7 October committed by State and non-State actors against Israelis and Palestinians.”

Another agency, UN Women, which is “dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women,” has issued multiple statements on the conflict but none addressing Hamas’s sex crimes.

With all the available evidence in hand, this disgraceful whitewashing of Hamas’s crimes against women by UN officials is scandalous.

Too many people who claim to stand up for women’s rights do not apparently extend that solidarity to women and girls in Israel. Some so-called “feminist” activists have hurled vitriolic accusations at Israel whilst ignoring Hamas’s heinous crimes, and casting absurd accusations about what they call “colonial feminism” to justify genocide. Still others have dismissed what they call “unverified accusations”. Their siding with Hamas is particularly outrageous given its discrimination against women, and its gross misuse of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals to hide its terror forces.

The message of the #MeToo movement was that the crimes of sexual violence are compounded by cultures of silence, stigma, denial and victim blaming, which prevent women securing justice. Yet for some activists, all this is ignored when the victims are Israeli. A movement to address this challenge is collecting signatures for a petition protesting UN silence. It has adopted the name: #MeToo_UNless_UR_a_Jew.

We need to call out plainly the trends behind this conspicuous denial of crimes against women and girls in Israel.

First, too many supposedly ‘progressive’ activists and intellectuals have moved from denying the right of Israel to exist, to denying the human rights of Israeli citizens, women and girls included. Having been branded (based on an utterly distorted framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) as ‘settler-colonialists’, every Israeli is a legitimate target in the face of Hamas “resistance”.

Second, in the context of widespread antisemitism prevalent across the Islamic world and sections of the left, a new antisemitic conspiracy theory is taking hold analogous to familiar forms of Holocaust denial. This is that Israel invented, exaggerated, or perpetrated itself the events of October 7 as a pretext for an act of genocide in the Gaza Strip.

Both these dangerous trends must be vigorously confronted. If we do not, the gross double standards they reveal unravel the very principles of universal rights.

For more on the conflict, see The Hamas-Israel War: Why now and what next?