Remember victims of Hamas on Women’s Day

The rise of proxy warfare through groups like Hamas has fuelled this appalling development


Demonstrators hold a banner reading "Raped by Hamas" during a rally organised by the Rape is Rape committee to "denounce the silence of international and feminist organisations" on rapes committed during the attack of October 7, 2023 on Israel, in front of Unesco headquarters in Paris on December 1, 2023. (Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP) (Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

March 06, 2024 16:39

International Women’s Day serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the pain, frustration and anger felt towards those who remained silent over the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas during the October 7 massacre.

Last year, well before these attacks, I began to research a report on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. I did so because the UN had declared that sexual violence in conflict was rapidly rising around the world.

As part of that work, I attended a screening of footage taken on October 7. I steeled myself in preparation — as much as one can for such shocking inhumanity. What I saw will stay with me always. I found in the weeks that followed, one simple aspect of the footage was seared into my memory: the nail polish, hair scrunchies, beaded friendship bracelets and soiled makeup left on lifeless bodies of young women.

It all evoked my own shared connection of womanhood with them and served as stark reminder that beneath the layers of my research — filled with legalisms, terminologies and statistics — lay individual women and girls whose final minutes were marked by extreme brutality.

Sexual violence as a weapon is by no means a new phenomenon, yet its prevalence and strategic deployment varies significantly across conflicts. In certain scenarios, it’s associated with weak military command or inexperienced forces. But in this case it points to something far more sinister. Leaked videos from interrogations show Hamas terrorists detailing instructions they were given to rape and “dirty” Israeli women.

On October 7 victims experienced genital mutilation, rape, and other forms of sexual violence, often publicly and in view of family or loved ones. In many cases, it was recorded and the footage distributed online by Hamas — a secondary act adding to the violation and humiliation of the victims — a tactic adopted increasingly often by terrorists.

There were clear genocidal motives, driven by violent Islamist extremism, an ideology found around the world that seeks to oppress women, shame them, silence them and treat them as something that can be defiled, owned or used. It should alarm us all.

The world watched almost in real time as the naked and lifeless body of Shani Louk was spat on as she entered Gaza on the back of a pickup truck surrounded by jeering men.

But what was then particularly painful was that the organisations that should be first to condemn the despicable actions and grotesque sexual violence remained silent. This led to a grassroots campaign #MeTooUnlessUrAJew directed towards the United Nations.

The UN has been showing a diminishing willingness to confront its own member states for the actions of its proxies and human rights abuses.

In my forthcoming report for the Henry Jackson Society, A Culture of Impunity: Understanding Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Contemporary Proxy Warfare, I explore how outdated and anachronistic ideas of armed conflict no longer adequately define the threats we face. Proxy warfare is now a military strategy whereby sponsoring states backs non-state actors. This often involves training, financial backing or arms proliferation. It is employed by state powers around the world, such as Iran with Hamas and Russia in its covert operations in Ukraine from 2014, which continued into the 2022 full-scale invasion with the Kremlin’s use of the mercenary Wagner Group.

The benefit to these states is that using proxies avoids full-scale military confrontation between global powers — but it has increasingly complicated the landscape of armed conflict.

As a strategy it can exacerbate and prolong conflicts and it also nurtures a culture that accepts increasing sexual violence.

While Hamas has the capacity and desire to act, for example, it would not have been able to plan and conduct such an attack as October 7 without years of support from Iran.

The US says it cannot substantiate the regime’s direct involvement in October 7, although this response has been rightly criticised, in part due to the Biden administration’s determination to maintain diplomatic relations with Tehran.

But even without laying the blame at Iran’s doorstep, we know know that Iran, primarily through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has long sponsored Hamas’s terrorist activities. Estimates suggest they provide them with upwards of $100 million a year. We also know that the Iranian regime, as part of the oppression of its own people, has tortured and degraded female protesters in Iran.

Sexual violence is an increasing and brutal problem in modern conflict. In the trauma of October 7, we should not forget the specific and despicable role that it played towards young and innocent Israeli women and girls.

Megan Gittoes is director of communications and policy at the Henry Jackson Society

March 06, 2024 16:39

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