As we watch with horror Israel’s escalating genocide of the Palestinian people, Palestinian feminists and our allies have also had to deal with the accusations of not caring about sexual assault and rape when the victims are Israeli. “Silence is violence, but not when it comes to Israeli rape victims,” writes Bret Stephens in the New York Times. The conservative, staunchly pro-Israel columnist then repeats horror stories by Israeli government officials about the mass rapes that Hamas fighters allegedly took part in, when they attacked a rave and two nearby kibbutzim in southern Israel on 7 October 2023. Stephens argues that the silence around these accusations is proof of the antisemitism that Zionists claim is pervasive amongst Palestinians and our allies--a hatred of Jews so deeply engrained that even feminists cannot sympathize with rape victims when the latter are Jewish, or Israeli. Another staunch Zionist, former Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, wrote an opinion piece in CNN saying the silence around the rapes of Israeli women is “deafening,” and urging readers to “denounce these rapes in every conversation, at every rally, and on signs held on every street corner.”
The accusations are harrowing. In what it claims to be a thorough investigation into the alleged crimes, the New York Times writes that “Israeli officials say that everywhere Hamas terrorists struck—the rave, the military bases along the Gaza border and the kibbutzim—they brutalized women.” According to these Israeli government officials, who included soldiers, medical personnel, and rape counselors, women were mutilated, “shredded to pieces,” had their breasts cut off and tossed around, they were gang raped, in some cases so violently that their pelvises were pulverized. Others had their faces sliced open, yet others were beheaded. A pregnant woman had been cut open, and her unborn fetus stabbed before she was shot in the back.
Feminists know that gender violence increases in times of war, and that women and queers are its most vulnerable targets. Palestinian feminists, in particular, have long documented the gender violence we are subjected to, as we endure settler colonialism and a brutal military occupation that controls every aspect of our lives, including the domestic and reproductive spheres. We also know that coming forward with an accusation of rape frequently refreshes the trauma of that horrific moment, which is why a woman stating she has been raped is to be taken very seriously. We believe in believing the survivors.
Not one of the rape accusations from the October 7 attack, however, came from a survivor, and there seems to be no reliable evidence to document any of the alleged crimes. Even the woman who was briefly referred to as “the woman in the black dress,” before she was identified as Gal Abdush, was not raped, according to her own sister, who posted on X about her anger at the New York Times manipulating their family’s story. The New York Times “investigation” featuring Abdush’s alleged rape concludes with a claim that Hamas fighters engaged in the systematic rape and mutilation of Israeli women, “a pattern,” rather than isolated incidents.
According to the widely circulated media reports, there were up to three hundred suspected rapes, all the bodies were hastily buried, and not one screening was done. Even the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel report about the “Hamas mass rapes” is built exclusively from second-hand sources. In an interview with The New Yorker, the head of that organization explained: “Our position paper is based on materials that we collected from public media outlets and videos that we saw in groups on Telegram, as well as discussions with a legal adviser and a doctor who volunteers with a civil-society group that’s supporting the hostages and the families. We haven’t interviewed actual witnesses.” As Lana Tatour writes in her scathing criticism of the methodology of the PHR-Israel and Human Rights Watch reports (the latter into the Al-Ahli hospital explosion): “These reports are based on speculations rather than evidence and a flawed methodology that amounts to unethical conduct.”
Indeed, public media outlets are not “evidence.” Videos circulating on social media can be manufactured, or misappropriated, misattributed. In January 2024, almost three months after the alleged mass rapes,Haaretz wrote that “The police are having difficulty locating victims of sexual assault or witnesses to acts from the Hamas attack, and are unable to connect the existing evidence with the victims described in it.” Every attempt at correlating known victims of the attack with descriptions of the alleged crimes has failed to confirm the veracity of witness reports.
Without evidence, then, one is not wrong to assume that these accusations of systematic mass rape would be tossed alongside the equally harrowing accusations of 40 beheaded Israeli babies, and dozens of Israeli children burnt alive. These reports were promptly denied by the Israeli government itself.
And yet we remember that US President Joe Biden had appeared on national television, addressing Jewish community leaders, and saying that he had seen photographs of these beheaded babies, evidence of the “sheer evil” of Hamas fighters. Joe Biden had not seen these images. The photos do not exist, as no babies were beheaded. The Israeli government itself stated that there was absolutely no evidence of Israeli babies having been beheaded. Joe Biden was lying, to rally support for Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people. Andhe repeated this debunked claim on 12 December 2023, at a re-election campaign event in Washington DC, saying: “I saw some of the photographs when I was there—tying a mother and her daughter together on a rope and then pouring kerosene on them and then burning them, beheading infants, doing things that are just inhuman—totally, completely inhuman.”
The US president’s deceitful claim of having seen “confirmed pictures” of the alleged beheaded babies reminded many of us of then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell telling the United Nations Security Council, in February 2003, that the US had evidence of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. Powell’s emphatic speech, in which he mentioned “weapons of mass destruction” a total of seventeen times, was meant to rally global support for the US war on Iraq, which devastated that country. “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources,” he said in the infamous speech. “These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” But there was no “solid intelligence,” no evidence of any weapons of mass destruction, and Powell later admitted he had lied, saying he regretted making that speech.
Biden was lying about the aftermath of October 7, and so was Yossi Landau, the director of ZAKA, who first spoke of the Israeli babies with their heads chopped off, and is now the prime witness for the rape allegations. ZAKA is a group of emergency response teams whose mission is to collect the remains of Jews killed in resistance attacks, road accidents, or other natural or human made disasters, so as to provide them a Jewish burial according to Jewish law. ZAKA is funded by the Israeli government, its volunteers are almost all ultra-Orthodox Jews, and none were at the rave. They arrived at the scene within an hour of the attack. Landau, ZAKA’s director, had gone on national and international television to report on what he had witnessed upon arrival at the scene of the Hamas attacks, and launched into a detailed description of the “babies with their heads chopped off,” and the “piles of babies burned alive,” before the Israeli government denied these crimes had actually happened.Yossi Landau was lying.
On the Need for Evidence
It is therefore important to look at what irrefutable documentation we do have, and see how persuasive it is, as well as who is making the allegations, and what ultimate political purpose they serve. Are these allegations being made to help potential survivors of rape, or are they exploiting the possible rapes, to further Israel’s genocidal agenda? Are any of the families of the rape victims (since no survivor has come forward) asking for justice, or retribution? Bret Stephens, the New York Times opinion columnist, has openly stated that he writes to serve the Israeli narrative. "Insofar as getting the story right helps Israel, I guess you could say I'm trying to help Israel," he told Haaretz, upon taking his post at the New York Times. Yossi Landau’s ZAKA organization is funded by the Israeli government, which has everything to gain from dehumanizing the Palestinian people, turning them into beasts and monsters. Landau fully delivered, by stating that in his thirty-three years as a first responder, he had never seen such depraved savagery as in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks.
Depicting one’s perceived enemy as a sexual predator is an age-old strategy to distract from, or justify, one’s own violence. This is all the more so across racial lines, where the oversexualized “predator” is viewed as violating both sexual and racial lines, rendering the alleged crime even more heinous, and necessitating a collective response from the violated community. A prime example of this is the mainstream US depiction of Black men, even children, as rapists. To cite but a few well-known examples, Emmett Till was only fourteen when he was abducted, tortured, and lynched by white men who accused him of having flirted with a white woman. The “Central Park Five,” Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, were also children, Black and Latino, ranging in age from 14 to 16, when they were falsely convicted of the rape of a white woman, and depicted in the media as“a wolf pack,” “bloodthirsty,” “animals,” “savages,” and “human mutations.” Hillary Clinton was continuing a long legacy of white supremacist violence when she spoke of Black youth as “superpredators.”
The United States and Israel are birds of a feather: settler-colonial countries founded on genocide, with its inexorable gender violence. And from pinkwashing to purplewashing, Israel has a long record of exploiting gender issues for political purposes. As its war crimes are now broadcast around the world, it has an ever greater need to ramp up its propaganda. And as with pinkwashing and purplewashing, Israel’s exploitation of gendered violence in this instance does not stem from a genuine concern for the vulnerable communities, but rather, uses the alleged crimes to justify its own atrocities. Indeed, it is revealing that Gal Abdush’s family are more outraged at the Israeli government’s exploitation of her death, and at the media’s sensationalizing it, than they are categorical about the fact that she was, or was not, raped.
Meanwhile, we have a number of Israeli women who are recounting their ordeal in captivity, stating that they feared being raped, and endured “psychological warfare,” yet none of them says she was raped. Other freed hostages who spoke to the press said they “met hostages” who had been abused, but again, this is not their personal experience.
As mentioned above, feminists understand that gender violence increases during strife, conflict, and war. But the weaponization of the allegations, none by a survivor, and many by witnesses who have been proven to be utterly mendacious, does not serve anyone. And we do need to examine the political context of the hitherto-unsubstantiated and mostly debunked allegations, and the purpose they serve. Specifically, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that Israel is weaponizing claims of sexual violence for propaganda purposes, to rally support for its genocide of the Palestinian people. And by publishing unsubstantiated and sensationalized reports of atrocities against Israeli women, and presenting them as facts, the media are complicit in this propaganda. This is taking place in a context of the complete erasure of sexual violence against Palestinians.
Gender-based Violence vs. Sensationalization of Rape Allegations
Since October 7, close to two million Palestinians have lost their homes and are facing catastrophic famine, rampant diseases, merciless bombardment, inclement weather, and yes, gender and reproductive violence too. Israeli soldiers arresting Palestinian men and stripping them naked is a form of gender violence, even though “gender violence” is generally understood as sexual assault, and presumed to be against women. Between 180 and 200 Palestinian women giving birth each day under genocidal conditions is a form of gender and reproductive violence. Because of the 16-year siege preceding the months-long genocidal war, the majority of these women have had no prenatal care prior to giving birth, so there is no way to tell if they have diabetes, high blood pressure, anemia, or other complicating factors. Nor is there a way to treat these conditions, if they were to be known. Newborn babies not being bathed for a month is a form of reproductive violence. And so are premature babies dying for lack of medical equipment. Considering that the genocidal assault on Gaza only accelerated since October 7, but had been going on for decades prior to that, we can attest that gender violence against the Palestinian people has been going on for decades, and utterly dismissed as non-existent, despite Palestinian feminists presenting copious evidence of it.
Did some Hamas fighters rape any Israeli women during the attack on the rave and kibbutzim on October 7, 2023? None of what I have written so far is to suggest otherwise. And yet, the question Palestinian feminists and our allies keep fielding is why we are looking away from what Zionist pundits assure us are “not isolated events but part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence on Oct. 7.”We are not looking away from gender-based violence, we are steering clear of the sensationalization of rape allegations for genocidal purposes. We have a long history of first-hand experience of official lies by governments intent on annihilating peoples viewed as disposable, undesirable, and we have reason to doubt the unsubstantiated claims being made today. And we need not be derivative, nor apologetic, as we maintain that the Palestinian people’s suffering is also gender violence, because Zionism is racism, and gender violence—Israeli gender violence against the Palestinian people--is an essential aspect of racism, of settler colonialism, of genocide.