Hundreds gathered at the United Nations on Monday for a special session spearheaded by Israel’s Permanent Mission to the UN, to raise awareness of the sexual crimes committed against women during Hamas’s October 7 attacks on southern communities, amid growing anger over the international community’s perceived silence on the issue.
“On October 7, Israel suffered its most brutal massacre since the Holocaust; the atrocities were more barbaric than ISIS, some say more than the Nazis,” said Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan at the outset of the event. “Families were burned alive, children executed in front of their parents and parents executed in front of their children.
“But the crimes didn’t end there: Hamas used rape and sexual violence as weapons of war. These were not spur-of-the-moment decisions to defile and mutilate girls and parade them while onlookers cheered; rather, this was premeditated,” Erdan said. “Sadly, the silence of international bodies who are supposedly defenders of women has been deafening.”
In the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, Hamas claimed Monday that the accusations of sexual violence were part of “Zionist campaigns which promote unfounded lies and allegations to demonize the Palestinian resistance.”
Erdan, who initiated the special session, told The Times of Israel that he picked UN Headquarters as the venue to “highlight the hypocrisy and double standards of UN Women and other UN agencies that completely abandoned Israeli women assaulted by Hamas.”
“I have been representing Israel here for the past three-and-a-half years, and have never witnessed such terrible behavior from UN agencies. They are openly discriminating against Israeli women,” he said.
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, came under intense fire for an October 13 statement that equated Hamas’s terror onslaught with Israel’s military response in the Gaza Strip, while failing to mention the terror group by name or address its sexual assaults.
Then, the organization late last month posted on Instagram a condemnation of “the brutal attacks by Hamas on October 7” — only to delete it shortly after.
On December 1, UN Women released another statement that began by expressing “deep regret” that Israeli operations had resumed in Gaza, and reiterated that “women, Israeli women, Palestinian women, as all others, are entitled to a life lived in safety and free from violence.”
The statement proceeded to “unequivocally condemn the brutal attacks by Hamas” and expressed alarm at “the numerous accounts of gender-based atrocities and sexual violence during those attacks.”
Erdan told The Times of Israel he remains unimpressed with UN Women, accusing the organization of paying “lip service” to Israelis to ease the pressure. On Saturday, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen called on the group’s executive director Sima Sami Bahous to resign.
Monday’s session was also attended by Democratic US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and keynoted by former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, founder of Lean In, a women’s rights and advancement group.
“It’s important that we are giving a voice to the women raped and murdered on October 7, and it is important that we are speaking truth to power in this place at this time,” said Gillibrand. “When I saw the list of women’s organizations that said nothing I was shocked. Where is the solidarity for women in this world?”
“The horrific acts by Hamas are indescribable, I’ve seen much of the raw footage. The sheer level of evil, you can’t unsee it; it haunts you,” Gillibrand continued. “While it is hard to tell these stories, we must collectively ensure that the world knows the heinous, barbaric nature of Hamas. We must ensure this is engraved in history for all time.”
Sandberg said Monday that “silence is complicity, and in the face of terror we cannot be quiet.”
“On October 7, Hamas brutally murdered 1,200 souls, and in some cases they first raped them,” she said. “We know this from eyewitnesses, combat paramedics, and we would know it from the victims themselves if more had been allowed to live. They would say something that should not need to be stated: Rape should never be used as a tool of war no matter what march you are attending or flag you are flying.
“We have come so far in establishing that rape is a crime against humanity and have come to believe victims of sexual assault. That is why the silence is dangerous, it threatens to undo a movement and decades of progress,” Sandberg said.
A report published last month by Physicians for Human Rights–Israel (PHRI) included testimonies by ZAKA search and rescue volunteers about Hamas’s widespread sexual abuse on October 7.
They include naked bodies being bound together in a house in Kibbutz Be’eri, and a murdered woman whose pants had been removed. The report also cited a video of a paramedic in an elite Israeli military unit saying he had seen a woman’s half-naked body with clear signs of rape, which he detailed.
A graphic report in the UK’s Sunday Times this week also offered harrowing details on evidence of the atrocities committed against multiple women.
The Israel Police unit investigating sexual violence committed on October 7 has collected thousands of statements, photographs and video clips documenting Hamas’s crimes.
Former US secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addressed the session by video.
“As a global community we must respond to weaponized sexual violence with condemnation,” Clinton said. “Rape as a weapon of war is a crime against humanity. It has no place in any conflict. It is outrageous that some who claim to stand for justice are closing their eyes and hearts to the victims of Hamas violence.”
It is outrageous that some who claim to stand for justice are closing their eyes and hearts to the victims of Hamas violence
US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller suggested Monday that Hamas was holding onto a number of female Israeli hostages because it does not want them to testify about what they experienced in captivity.
“The fact that they continue to hold women hostages, the fact that they continue to hold children hostages, just the fact that it seems one of the reasons they don’t want to turn women over they’ve been holding hostage, and the reason this pause fell apart, is they don’t want those women to be able to talk about what happened to them during their time in custody,” said Miller, in response to a question from a reporter about growing evidence of Hamas rape and sexual abuse on October 7.
“There is very little that I would put beyond Hamas when it comes to its treatment of civilians, and particularly its treatment of women,” he added.
State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller suggests “one of the reasons [Hamas doesn’t] want to turn women over that they’ve been holding hostage — and the reason this pause fell apart — is they don’t want those women to talk about what happened to them.” pic.twitter.com/GOlM3PHgVR
— The Recount (@therecount) December 4, 2023
The efforts to bring growing awareness of Hamas’s sexual crimes appears to be turning the tide somewhat, with demonstrations in support of Israeli women held last week in Tel Aviv, London, New York and other cities worldwide, in parallel to the UN’s International Awareness Week for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Also on Monday, the Israeli activist group Women Building an Alternative posted a full-page ad in the New York Times calling on the world to recognize the sexual crimes that were committed against Israeli women on October 7, while dozens of women protested outside the UN.
Chanting “Shame on UN,” the pro-Israel demonstrators held banners reading “Rape is rape,” while speakers attacked the UN for inaction over the mistreatment of Israeli women.
A line of 20 women smeared with synthetic blood, some wearing just their underwear, formed a line at the front of the demonstration to draw attention to violence against women by Hamas.
“I call it the ‘United Nothing’… why do we have to be here to tell the UN to protect people?” said demonstrator Hillary Larson, 64, a pediatric nurse from New York. “First they should condemn [Hamas] 100%… then demand that Hamas release hostages, innocent people taken from their homes.”
Protesters among the roughly 150-strong crowd waved Israel’s flag and chanted “release the hostages” while one held a banner marked “(UN Secretary-General Antonio) Guterres, what if Hamas kidnapped your family?”
“We’re here supporting Israeli women who were brutally raped. They deserve the support of other women. Any other attack on women would be treated as a crime,” former lawmaker Carolyn Maloney, who spoke at the march, told AFP.
“Three hundred women were slaughtered twice on October 7,” said Israeli government spokeswoman Tal Heinrich at Monday’s session. “First, when Hamas committed shocking acts of sexual violence against them, abusing, raping and mutilating them, in certain cases in front of their loved ones; and the second time when the terrorists put a bullet in them.
“Today, we hear abundant accounts of these atrocities. We will not let them be murdered a third time. We will not neglect them; we will grieve them and share their stories.”
Erdan said: “Although this is heartbreaking for all women, we must not despair. Every person here in this room is standing up to immorality. This is an immense source of inspiration and empowers women everywhere. Even if UN Women decides to stay silent, that does not mean the world will follow. The world will know the truth. The truth will prevail and justice will be brought.”
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.