Seeking to end silence around sexual violence in war, an MK raises her voice abroad

Feeling she has to ‘shock the world to take notice of what’s happening,’ freshman Yesh Atid lawmaker Shelly Tal Meron is trying to build a global coalition to fight weaponized rape

Sam Sokol

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

MK Shelly Tal Meron (center) addresses the 'Global Women’s Coalition Against Gender Based Violence as a Weapon of War' at the Knesset, May 20, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
MK Shelly Tal Meron (center) addresses the 'Global Women’s Coalition Against Gender Based Violence as a Weapon of War' at the Knesset, May 20, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Speaking at a conference on combating weaponized sexual violence in the Knesset last week, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid slammed “useful idiots” abroad who “believe everything they see on their phones, but do not believe the horrific testimonies of sexual abuse by Hamas terrorists.”

“Throughout history, there has been a conspiracy of silence surrounding sexual violence during war,” he said. This silence, he argued, was a prime culprit in allowing these rapes to continue occurring.

“We came here today to cry out against silence,” he declared.

The May 20 meeting, which took place in a packed hall in Israel’s parliament, was convened by MK Shelly Tal Meron of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, who is seeking to establish an international alliance to deal with issues of wartime sexual assault in the aftermath of the October 7 attack — the Global Women’s Coalition against Gender Based Violence as a Weapon of War.

“We are declaring today the establishment of an important historical coalition, of acknowledging sexual violence as a crime of war,” the freshman lawmaker declared. She argued that, while international law has already recognized this, work remains to ensure that “the cultural and political ‏perception” of such violations changes as well.

According to Tal Meron’s office, delegates from France, Ireland, Denmark, the UK, and other countries took part in the discussions, which were co-sponsored by ELNET, an organization working to build ties between Israel and Europe.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid speaks at a meeting of the ‘Global Women’s Coalition against Gender Based Violence as a Weapon of War,’ at the Knesset, May 20, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hamas engaged in widespread sexual assault during its attack on October 7, when thousands of terrorists invaded Israel by land, sea, and air, killing 1,200 people — a majority of them civilians — and taking 252 others hostage into Gaza.

Israeli women held captive in the Gaza Strip are subjected to regular sexual abuse, with their guards treating them like “dolls,” according to testimony from freed hostages presented in January at a meeting of the Knesset caucus on victims of sexual and gender violence in the war against Hamas — which was co-chaired by Tal Meron.

Addressing Tuesday’s gathering, Israel Prize-winning international law and human rights expert Cochav Elkayam-Levy argued that “current international conventions are simply not enough” to deal with a resurgence of gender-based violence in conflicts from the Middle East to Ukraine.

Elkayam-Levy, who served on the Civil Commission of Oct. 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children, told the conference that she was “working with scholars to recognize a new crime against humanity,” which she calls kinocide, “the deliberate weaponization or destruction of families.”

In an opinion piece published in The Times of Israel last week, Elkayam-Levy and former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler asserted that “our legal systems are currently ill-equipped to address” the deliberate targeting of families.

“In assessing the legal ramifications of Hamas’s actions, it becomes apparent that international criminal law lacks the specific mechanisms to confront the extent of the brutality and systematicity employed on October 7th,” they wrote.

Finding a cause

“When this war started, I found myself doing interviews for international press because there aren’t so many English-speaking members of the Knesset,” Tal Meron recalled during an interview in her Knesset office.

As a fluent English speaker (her mother is American) and a former spokesperson for the Israeli Air Force, Tal Meron said that she understood that within days of the October 7 massacre, the media would shift from speaking about atrocities against Israelis and instead report on developments in the Gaza Strip — making it necessary to expend significant effort to keep Hamas’s crimes in the public eye.

“Because I’m a member of the Knesset and I’m a member of the Women’s Rights Committee, I was exposed to a lot of materials, both videos and testimonies and other materials which were inexplicable. There are no words to describe the things that I saw,” she said.

Aviva Siegel (L) and her daughter Shir testify at the Knesset caucus on victims of sexual and gender violence in the war, January 23, 2024. (Screen grab used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“And I knew that I have to be the voice of women who have no voice. And they’re either murdered, most of them, unfortunately, or are being kept in Gaza as hostages. And I started traveling around Europe to tell the Israeli story,” she said.

Unlike Israelis, who have had constant exposure to the atrocities of October 7, many who she spoke to did not seem to be aware of the extent of Hamas’s actions. “You would see people shifting their demeanor, shifting from one point to the other” as she presented evidence of what happened, she said.

Pregnant hostages

At the same time as her advocacy work abroad, Tal Meron started taking steps to deal with the issue at home, establishing the Knesset caucus on victims of sexual and gender violence in the war against Hamas, with Likud lawmaker Tsega Melaku.

It was during a gathering held by that body that Tal Meron and released hostages raised the possibility that some of the captives could come home pregnant with Hamas terrorists’ babies.

“We may find ourselves here in a few months in the Knesset holding discussions that I don’t want to think about,” Meron said at that hearing.

“It could be discussions on terminating pregnancies in the coming months. It could be discussions with the rabbinate about the religion of the babies who may be born here or there. It could be about the legal standing of these babies who may be born,” she said.

Looking back at that meeting, Tal Meron told The Times of Israel that she felt she had to “shock the world so that they would take notice of what’s happening.”

Footage released by the Hostages Families Forum on Wednesday appeared to bolster Tal Meron’s case that the hostages are in danger of being impregnated.

Warning: Graphic footage

The video, taken by body cameras worn by Hamas terrorists on October 7 as they attacked the Nahal Oz base near the Gaza border, shows the abduction of female soldiers Liri Albag, Karina Ariev, Agam Berger, Daniella Gilboa, and Naama Levy.

During one part of the video, a Hamas terrorist can be seen pointing at the hostages, stating that “here are the women who can get pregnant.”

Building a coalition

That desire led Tal Meron to turn to French MP Aurore Bergé, minister for gender equality and the fight against discrimination, and suggest joining forces.

“Let’s ask countries, free countries around the world, democratic, liberal, Western countries, to join this coalition and acknowledge the sexual assault as war weapons,” she recalled telling Bergé.

Asked what such a coalition could do on a practical level, given that rape is already considered a war crime, Tal Meron asserted that following October 7, legislators need to establish procedures for handling the aftermath of mass crimes against women.

“Because there was such a large scale of, unfortunately, dead bodies in the beginning, we didn’t even look for all the forensic evidence. We had people who saw a lot of women tied to trees at the Nova festival, and they untied them and moved the bodies because they wanted to cover them and to respect them. But that gets in the way of the forensic evidence. That’s just one example,” she explained.

While reticent to provide any details this early in the process, Tal Meron said she was drafting domestic legislation along these lines and working to organize another gathering in Paris sometime in the coming months.

Actors perform at a ‘No Silence Fashion show,’ during a meeting of the ‘Global Women’s Coalition Against Gender Based Violence as a Weapon of War,’ at the Knesset, May 20, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“By then, I hope we I have a lot of countries that will join the coalition. I’m going to [write] a declaration of principles that countries that want to join the coalition will sign,” she said.

“I hope each and every person there will go back to their country and say, we need to take part of this huge coalition. We need to make it happen. And we can form this very, very important global coalition, hopefully.”

French Minister for Gender Equality Bergé seemed to agree, telling the conference in a video message from Paris that Israel “can count on France’s determination… to combat this scourge [of weaponized sexual violence] we sadly see reemerging.”

“We will stand by your side to shed light on what happened,” she said. “These crimes too must not be unpunished.”

An insufficient local response

But while Tal Meron seems heartened by the response of Bergé and other foreign partners, she is less sanguine regarding her own country’s leaders.

Pointing to a photo released by the White House last month of US President Joe Biden holding 4-year old Israeli-American Avigail Idan, who was taken hostage and later freed, the lawmaker said that some of the families of the hostages “are being taken care of in a good manner,” while others “have not even received one phone call from anyone from the government, which is unthinkable.”

US President Joe Biden holds freed Hamas hostage Avigail Idan at the White House, Washington, DC, April 24, 2024. (White House photo)

And even as the Tekuma (Revival) Administration, a special body announced by the government days after the massacre to rehabilitate Israel’s southern Gaza border communities is “doing an amazing job,” “there are issues that we need to improve,” she continued.

“When it comes to finances, a lot of the families of the hostages, they stopped working. Their whole lives stopped. They’re devastated. They don’t sleep, they don’t eat. They need help. They need help from the country. They get some help. It’s not enough,” Tal Meron stated.

“When it comes to their rehabilitation, I think we’re trying to do the best we can as a country. The Ministry of Health is working with them. They’re giving them psychological help and physical help. In that regard, I think it’s okay. There’s always room for improvement.”

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