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The Precedent of October 7th in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Systemic Gender and Sexual-Based Violence

Noa Balf

Disclaimer: This article contains content that discusses gender and sexual-based violence, which may be distressing or triggering for some readers. We want to advise caution to those who have experienced trauma related to this subject. The purpose of this article is to address and raise awareness about the issue, promote understanding, and encourage support for survivors. Reader discretion is advised.

Nevertheless, what occurred on October 7th is unique and represents a frightening development in an already lengthy and violent conflict. 

"In contemporary armed conflicts, particularly though not exclusively ethnonational, rape is intentionally committed by specific men against specific women (and men) – namely 'enemy' women (and men) – and therefore it cannot be regarded as indiscriminate." (Alison, 2007)

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a persistent and long-running ethnic/national conflict. However, until October 7th, 2023, the conflict did not feature gender and sexual-based violence. Namely – multiple and simultaneous violent attacks, including rape and murder of women and children. This is surprising considering that similar ethnic/national/religious and territorial conflicts did feature significant acts of sexual violence, e.g., in the Balkans. I will note that there are claims of acts of rape in the 1948 war, as well as interrogation tactics by the Israeli security apparatus, that include gender-based violence. Nevertheless, what occurred on October 7th is unique and represents a frightening development in an already lengthy and violent conflict. 

On October 7th, Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants infiltrated Israel proper from the Gaza Strip. Hamas and some of the other groups enacted unprecedented violence towards a mostly civilian population. Engaging in a pattern of systemic gender and sexual-based violence targeting primarily young women present at a rave dance party in the desert, young women soldiers in their military base, and civilian women in the Kibbutzim. 

The immediate response to revelations and allegations of gender and sexual-based violence committed by Hamas was led by civic initiatives and women's organizations. Specifically, Dr. Cochav Elkayam-Levy, who established and led the Civil Commission on Oct. 7th Crimes by Hamas against Women and Children, is working on the painstaking task of collecting and archiving all available testimonies and digital evidence on the atrocities committed. Along with fifteen leading scholars, experts, and practitioners, she is coordinating international advocacy efforts to address the systematic and deliberate gender and sexual-based violence on Israeli women and men, as well as advising the Israeli government on this matter.

Dr. Sarai Aharoni, Senior Lecturer and Programme Head of Gender Studies at Ben-Gurion University, heads the documentation team within the Civil Commission. All collected materials will be deposited as a closed archive at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The commission states that they are unable to accurately estimate the number of victims in part because, at the moment, most of the known cases were of people who were killed. Further complicating matters, particularly in the cases identified on army bases, is the treatment of the scene as a military attack and not a forensic crime scene. Therefore, the military personnel prioritized identifying the bodies and providing honorable Jewish burial rites. We may never know the full extent of the horrors of October 7th. 

What do we know?

In the Women's Advancement Legislative Committee meeting on November 28th, representatives from the police force conducting investigations into the gender and sexual-based violence committed on October 7th read from a relevant selection of the 1500 witness testimonies regarding the events of that day. 

Many of the testimonies regarding the gender and sexual-based violence that occurred on October 7th were recorded by health and rescue workers who were the first to arrive at the sites of the militant attacks. These witness accounts state that women were found naked from the waist down with obvious signs of sexual trauma. In a few cases, men were found naked and tied up. Both men's and women's bodies were found mutilated postmortem, including the cutting of breasts and genitalia. 

Scholarship states that "gang rape performs a bonding function for groups of men and that it accounts for a high proportion of wartime sexual violence." (Alison, 2007)

testimony of a survivor of the Nova dance party stated that "everything was an apocalypse of bodies… girls without tops [shirts], without bottoms [naked from the waist down] … people massacred, some were beheaded, there were girls that they just broke their pelvis from how much they were raped…". Another testimony read in the committee meeting from the Nova dance party stated "there was gunfire targeted at the mens' genitalia… they were fixated on the genitalia of men and women, we saw dismembered breasts … with the men we saw many dismembered penises…" In another testimony, a witness describes the militants cutting a woman's breast off, then throwing it on the ground and playing with it.

It is known that women held as hostages have experienced sexual violence.

Importantly - "the female body is a symbolic representation of the body politic' and rape of women is 'the symbolic rape of the body of [the] community' (Seifert, 1994).  Wartime sexual violence functions as a form of communication between men and a measure of victory and masculinity, with women's bodies the vehicle of communication, the site of battle, and the conquered territory. It is a communication, then, between hegemonic and subordinate masculinities . . . the fact that rape of women performs a communicative function between men also illustrates more than anything else women's fundamental objectification (Copelon, 1995)." (Alison, 2007)

How do we care for victims and survivors?

While testimonies of those who survived the attack have not gone public, advocates are calling for thoughtful treatment and recognition. Survivors should be able to choose when and if they decide to come forward. 

The Director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers, Orit Sulitzeanu, said in an interview that in addition to video evidence of rape, sodomy, and insertion/penetration of foreign objects, they are also aware of survivors who have sought private medical care with the explicit aim of avoiding any reporting process within the public health care system in Israel. Her organization's goals are to minimize shame or guilt for survivors.

Efforts must be made to give legitimacy and credibility for survivors to receive the treatment and care they request, not to enforce public preferences on them. That is to say - these events should not be used for political campaigns. Nor should advocates, practitioners, or sympathetic audiences demand or expect victims to come forward with public and performative testimonies. Advocates must commit to ensuring that victims of October 7th regain and maintain agency and control over their experiences. We must center the needs of those who survived these events, and not use them for cheap political rhetoric, and certainly not to promote further violence and belligerence. 

Requiring additional evidence and questioning the legitimacy of these claims is one of the ways international women's organizations have failed Israeli women. This approach is counter to decades of GBV programming practice that seeks to provide victims a voice and agency. It also sets a dangerous precedent for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other ethnic conflicts; to receive international recognition and response to accusations of gender and sexual-based violence, victims must be "respectable" or "acceptable." This is an impossible and horrendous standard. 

Concern over how to address gender and sexual-based violence in wartime has been discussed repeatedly among scholars and practitioners (Aroussi, 2011). Yet despite the existence of a robust debate, international institutions whose jurisdiction includes addressing such events, like the U.N. Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs or UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict (UN Action), have not even fully recognized the extent of the violence committed on October 7th. 

Acknowledging the group rape, murder, and sexual mutilation of women and men in Israel proper in no way denies the suffering of Palestinian people in Gaza. International organizations cannot accept and play into a dichotomous, zero-sum framing promoted by politicians at the expense of people in wartime. Furthermore, dichotomous framing ignores the complexity of the situation. While we may want to empathize with who we collectively understand as the "victim," discussing this in absolutist and simplistic terms is not constructive or useful for policymakers and ignores a feminist analysis that should provide space for nuance that someone can be both a perpetrator and a victim themselves. We need to hold space for the existence of complexity in people rather than fall into the trap of trying to establish normative designations of good and bad that cause us to ignore or dismiss harm. 

At this moment, we need solidarity in acknowledging and believing victims of sexual and gender-based violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israeli state has a terrible history of addressing and dealing with sexual-based violence. This is work that has largely been outsourced to non-profit organizations and NGOs. More recently, the current government has engaged in partisan effortsto gain control over the limited government agencies responsible for coordinating women's rights efforts in Israel. Additionally, the Minister of National Defense, Itamar Ben-Gvir, tried to prevent the implementation of a law requiring domestic abusers to wear ankle monitors, citing men's rights. This suggests that the current government in Israel does not have the ideological preference or skillset to develop a comprehensive response to the gender-based and sexual violence that occurred on October 7th.

As mentioned, efforts to collect data on the gender and sexual-based violence that occurred on October 7th, as well as advocacy on these matters, are conducted almost entirely by civic initiatives and women's organizations. It took over a month for the Israeli legislature to discuss the matter, and even this was in response to pressure from women activists. 

There needs to be a concerted effort to incentivize the Israeli government to expend significant efforts to support gender and sexual-based violence prevention and treatment programs. Although the Israeli state has the capacity and resources to do more in this arena, it has repeatedly failed to allocate and effectively administer them. As a result, Dr. Elkayam-Levy and the Civil Commission have put out position papers that include a list of over 50 available women experts and leaders prepared to be appointed to positions in response to national crises. They are also calling for the guaranteed representation of women at all levels of government to ensure that the particular needs of women are addressed.

Finally, international bodies and organizations like the U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict (UN Action) and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women must commit to investigating the gender and sexual-based violence that occurred on October 7th. The resulting report should provide clear policy recommendations for the Israeli government as well as put public pressure on Israeli leadership to respond effectively to the needs of survivors and guarantee accountability. This process should be transparent and accessible to the public. Due to the unprecedented violence, it is incumbent upon policymakers and advocates to articulate clear language and policy for how to handle GBV in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

"Endemic to violence against women is a corresponding move to silence them: like the proverbial three monkeys, patriarchal politics do not want to see, hear, or speak of the violence enacted on women's bodies and psyches. This perpetual attempt to negate the voices and narratives of women, who suffer external political violence as well as internal patriarchal oppression, is further aggravated in conflict areas where material strife, political unrest, or war foregrounds the existing tensions of a gender-biased world. The crude institutionalized violence against women in conflict areas that is denied by patriarchal structural powers has made the victimization of women invisible in the social and political analyses of conflict zones." (Shalhoub-Kevorkian, 2004

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

Acknowledgments 

I would like to thank the experts, practitioners, and scholars who contributed to the writing of this blog post. 

  • Aviv Tesler, Director of Training, Haifa Rape Crisis Center
  • Dr. Sarai Aharoni, Senior Lecturer and Programme Head of Gender Studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev
  • Dr. Irit Dekel, Assistant Professor in Germanic Studies and Jewish Studies, Indiana University Bloomington, Director of the Olamot Center for Scholarly and Cultural Exchange with Israel
  • Dr. Cochav Elkayam Levy, Davis Institute for International Relations, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Sophie Davis Forum on Gender, Conflict Resolution and Peace, HU; Reichman University Lauder School of Government; Founding head, Dvora Institute for Gender and Sustainability; Founder of The Civil Commission on Oct. 7th Crimes by Hamas against Women and Children

About the Author

Noa Balf

Noa Balf

Melanie and Andrew Goodman Postdoctoral Fellow at the Olamot Center, Indiana University Bloomington; Research Affiliate, Forum for Regional Thinking at the Van Leer Institute at Hebrew University & Haifa Feminist Institute  
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more