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Breaking the silence on sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas

Saturday, October 7, was supposed to be the day of Kfar Aza’s annual kite festival. The brainchild of the Kutz family, the residents of the kibbutz gathered to fly kites adorned with the words “peace,” “shalom,” and “salam” at the nearby border with Gaza.

There was no kite-flying or messages of hope and peace on that dark Saturday. Instead, Aviv Kutz, his wife Livnat and children – 19-year-old Rotem, 17-year-old Yonatan, and 15-year-old Yiftach – were murdered in their home by Hamas terrorists. Their kites were found nearby. The family were among the estimated 52-60 kibbutz residents who were massacred that day.

Last month, I visited Kfar Aza as part of a Labour Friends of Israel delegation. Nothing can quite prepare you for the scene: burned-out houses, looted possessions strewn around, entire streets destroyed. And nothing can quite prepare you for the accounts I heard of what occurred here, at the Nova musical festival – where more than 360 party-goers were murdered – and elsewhere in the kibbutzim and small towns of southern Israel.

In December, Kfar Aza was identified by the New York Times as one of at least seven locations where Israeli women and girls were subjected to horrific sexual violence: rape, torture and mutilation. “The attacks against women were not isolated events,” the paper concluded, “but part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence.” This confirms the analysis made by Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, an expert on family law and international women’s rights, and Israeli women’s groups.

As Professor Halperin-Kaddari told me, Hamas used sexual violence as a premeditated and systematic weapon of war. The victims were immediately murdered, but testimonies from eye-witnesses – including women who feigned death at the Nova music festival and have described seeing unspeakable sexual crimes – and first responders are being gathered by the police and the Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children.

The crimes to which Israeli women were subjected on October 7 are unimaginable Quote

I was shown around the powerful exhibition, which recreates the Nova music festival by a survivor of the massacre. The piles of discarded shoes were reminiscent of those I witnessed at Auschwitz.

The agony of the victims’ families has been exacerbated by the failure of international institutions, human rights groups and civil society organisations to swiftly speak out, condemn and show solidarity with Israeli women.

For instance, it took over seven weeks for the UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, to call for an investigation into Hamas’ sexual violence crimes. And it took UN Women a similar length of time to directly address the issue, saying it was “alarmed” by the accounts.

As Deborah Lipstadt, the US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, and Ambassador Michèle Taylor, the US permanent representative to the UN Human Rights Council, have argued: “This reaction is in stark contrast to the global gender-based violence movement’s typical emphasis on the importance of listening to and believing survivors’ accounts.”

For Israeli women, Professor Halperin-Kaddari told me, this attitude is deeply hurtful and distressing. And it is difficult to escape the conclusion that it is shaped by an indifference towards, or failure to acknowledge, the suffering of Jewish women. It is hard to imagine the voices of women of any other nationality or race being treated in this callous manner.

Last month, UN experts began, at last, to address the issue. Alice Jill Edwards, a special rapporteur on torture, and Morris Tidball-Binz, a special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, suggested that “the growing body of evidence about reported sexual violence is particularly harrowing” and argued that “these acts constitute gross violations of international law, amounting to war crimes which, given the number of victims and the extensive premeditation and planning of the attacks, may also qualify as crimes against humanity”.

One of the worst aspects of these crimes is the evidence that they are continuing. It is deeply concerning that, despite an agreement in November with Israel to do so, Hamas refused to release all of the women it is holding hostage. Indeed, during my discussions, I was told that a major fear of the families is that some of the hostages may now be many weeks pregnant.

The crimes to which Israeli women were subjected on October 7 are unimaginable. That anyone who claims to be concerned with the evil of sexual violence should fail to recognise these crimes is unthinkable and unconscionable.

Louise Ellman

Dame Louise Ellman was a Labour MP from 1997 to 2019 and served as Chair of Labour Friends of Israel.

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