December 1, 2023
Eyewitnesses and first responders to the Hamas attacks on October 7 have reported that militants committed sexual violence against Israeli women and girls. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an investigation, amplifying a demand put forward by Israeli feminist organizations. MADRE categorically condemns the use of gender-based violence in war. While we cannot independently verify claims of sexual violence on October 7, they deserve to be investigated, as do reports of sexual violence committed by Israeli security forces and settlers, which has long been used to subjugate Palestinians.
As the International Criminal Court (ICC) moves to investigate Hamas and Israel for war crimes, we reaffirm our commitment to human rights, international legal protections, and healing for all survivors. At the inception of the ICC almost 25 years ago, MADRE coordinated a feminist coalition that won recognition of sexual violence as a war crime and a crime against humanity for the first time in history.
Today, MADRE calls on the ICC and the international human rights community to ensure a survivor-centered approach that includes investigation of Hamas’ reported use of sexual violence against Israeli women and girls, and Israel’s reported use of sexual violence against Palestinian prisoners and Palestinians targeted by Israeli soldiers or settlers.
For decades, we have worked with survivors of wartime rape from the Balkans, Rwanda, Guatemala, Sudan, Iraq and beyond. In that work, we’ve seen how systematic sexual violence in armed conflict is used to sow fear in entire communities and destroy people’s ability to recover from war, and how recognizing harm can advance justice and healing. Moreover, seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence in conflict is always fraught. These violations often induce stigma, silencing and other barriers that put justice and healing out of reach for survivors. For instance, in Iraq, MADRE works with women’s rights activists organizing their communities to end the rejection and isolation of women and girls targeted with wartime rape. In Sudan, our partners work to address the ongoing trauma of rape used as a weapon of war in the early 2000’s, a crime which is rampant in this year’s resurgent conflict, which has killed 9,000 people.
In the case of the atrocities in Israel and Palestine, efforts to confront sexual violence are hindered by widespread disinformation that has dominated our newsfeeds, including disinformation propagated by the Israeli government. These efforts are also hampered by the failure of Israel’s forensic institutions to fully and properly preserve physical evidence of sexual assault on October 7—an all-too common occurance in both war and peacetime. Efforts to name sexual violence are also undermined by a highly polarized public conversation that pits the very humanity of Palestinians and Israelis against one another, ultimately diminishing all of our humanity.
We reject any presumption that our support for Palestinian liberation leaves no room for condemnation of attacks against civilians, or that compassion for Israeli victims requires an endorsement of Israel’s assault on Gaza. We also repudiate racist notions that tarnish all Palestinian men as predators or that hold the entire Palestinian people responsible for the attacks by Hamas. Furthermore, seeking justice for Israeli survivors does not imply a moral or material equivalency between Israeli and Hamas crimes.
In fact, the catastrophic, retaliatory violence against civilians in Gaza is not justice, despite the claims of rightwing Israeli leaders stoking people’s desires for vengeance. As the truce ends and the bombs begin again to rain down on Palestinian civilians, we recall what Israeli peace activists have asserted, “One massacre does not justify another.” We once again call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire.
We uphold those fundamental principles, including a vital international norm that distinguishes between a governing authority – which must be held accountable through justice mechanisms for its human rights abuses and war crimes – and its civilians. That distinction supports the universal prohibition on attacking civilians. Hamas violated that prohibition on October 7 and by holding Israeli civilian hostages. Israel has also violated that prohibition consistently, throughout its occupation, and in its current disproportionate and indiscriminate assault on Gaza, where a growing body of evidence shows that Israel is committing genocide.
Although the prospect of peace has never seemed farther out of reach, now is the time to safeguard its foundations by recognizing and beginning to address grave violations of human rights, including sexual violence. As we continue to support our partners in Palestine with immediate relief in the face of Israel’s ongoing bombing campaign in Gaza and attacks by settlers and soldiers in the West Bank, we stand with people in Palestine and Israel who know that peace ultimately depends on an end to occupation and apartheid, justice for survivors of violence, and safety and human rights for all.