The Burden Women Bear: Israel-Hamas War Sheds Light on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Experienced by Israeli & Palestinian Women

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The war outbreak between Israel and Hamas introduces a grim development in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The October 7th attack heightened existing tensions and brought pertinent conversations to the forefront – namely, the disproportionate impact security crises have on women. As of 2022, over 600 million women and girls reside in conflict zones. This is particularly evident in the Middle East and Northern Africa, where armed conflict reaches millions. These crises place a unique burden on women,[1] and the frequently overlooked role of gender in crisis zones often exacerbates existing inequalities.

Women are more vulnerable to sexual violence during wartime, a concept known as conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). Feminist perspectives help contextualize how and why sexual violence manifests during armed conflict. By examining how gender roles and inequality are created and maintained in the international system via systemic oppression through patriarchy or colonialism, feminist perspectives present valuable insights into centering the role of gender in analyzing conflict-related sexual violence.

Analyzing Israel and Palestine within a feminist framework ultimately reveals a male-dominated culture that tends to neglect women’s security concerns. Given this context, the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war makes Israeli and Palestinian women more susceptible to CRSV. In turn, existing inequalities women face in the region are heightened amid increased threats of violence and are critical in considering CRSV.

Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

The United Nations refers to CRSV as “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict” and notes that women are disproportionately vulnerable to it. In 2021, the UN reported 3,293 cases of CRSV and estimated a staggering amount of unreported cases somewhere between 32,930 and 65,860.

CRSV is often used as a weapon of war. While international criminal law recognizes many types of sexual violence as war crimes, little is done to address the social factors and environmental conditions that allow sexual crimes to occur. As a result, gender-based violence remains prevalent.

The Hamas attack was no exception. Members kidnapped, raped, and sexually assaulted Israeli women during its attack on Israeli communities. Although they were widely condemned, it will be challenging to hold Hamas responsible – terrorist organizations often utilize weaponized sexual violence, but violent nonstate actors’ prosecutions for CRSV are rare. Furthermore, officials are already struggling amid the chaos of the war to prioritize protocols and procedures that help collect concrete evidence of sexual assault. These compounding factors will make access to justice for Israeli CRSV deeply challenging.

Palestinian women face increased risks of sexual exploitation and trafficking as a result of increased violence, mass displacement, and insufficient safeguards that followed the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. These rising tensions only intensify existing threats that have existed throughout the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

For instance, Israeli soldiers sexually assaulted Palestinian women in Israeli prisons during the First Intifada to coerce information and discourage resistance efforts. More recently, Palestinian women experienced sexual assault at Israeli checkpoints and sexual humiliation during Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)-led raids: for instance, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israeli soldiers stripped and humiliated Palestinian women during a raid in July 2023. Local Palestinian activists interviewed for the story noted that such incidents were not “exceptional incidents,” but an observed pattern. As the war continues, Palestinian and Israeli women face greater risk of CRSV exacerbated by existing and systemic sexual violence.

Cultural and Political Considerations

CRSV encompasses sexual violence occurring both between enemy populations as well as those that occur within a state’s armed forces. In the case of Israel, having a strong, central military and military conscription – which Israeli scholar Uri Ben-Eliezer described as “the making of Israeli militarism” – helped Israel navigate persistent insecurity in the region. However, many also note that this approach to governance cultivated a more aggressive male-oriented culture and created further risk for Israeli women, especially those in the military. For instance, approximately one in four women serving in Israel’s conscription service have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Israeli officials.

Political and legal instability exacerbates the increased risk of sexual violence, which most acutely describes Palestinian women’s struggles with CRSV. In a system where legal processes and government operations are severely diminished, Palestinian women must grapple with inconsistent law enforcement and little legal safeguards. Even when CRSV crimes are reported, there is inadequate institutional and social support for survivors. Such pre-existing barriers are worsened by the system put in place by Hamas. Since its controversial election victory in 2006, Hamas has cultivated a political system prone to corruption and hostility towards any political opposition. Because cases of CRSV are more likely to occur (and be ignored) in corrupt environments with ineffective rule of law, Palestinian women in Gaza are uniquely at-risk.

CRSV also intersects with barriers to accessing women’s healthcare. For instance, Palestinian women located in remote, rural locations must travel long distances while in labor and are often forced to give birth at Israeli checkpoints due to travel restrictions. Additionally, Israeli occupation and the threat of violence impose other restrictions on women’s health services through enforced curfews and unreliable access to electricity. Though these examples do not conform to our traditional understanding of direct interpersonal sexual violence, they directly impede women from accessing critical sexual and reproductive health services, which can be a form of CRSV.

The Israel-Hamas war aggravates these healthcare concerns. Currently, 50,000 women are estimated to be pregnant in Gaza. Widespread destruction of homes and hospitals during Israeli airstrikes – coupled with the Israeli government’s decision to cut off the supply of food, water, and fuel to Gaza – creates dire conditions for women seeking antepartum, intrapartum, and postpartum care. Additionally, victims of sexual violence are unable to access the immediate medical care survivors require.

Filling Policy Gaps

The Israel-Hamas war beckoned renewed conversations regarding women’s security in the region. However, sexual violence and gendered experiences typically take the back burner. Paying specific attention to how CRSV intensifies on top of existing inequalities can help assess the threat of CRSV against Israeli and Palestinian women.

A feminist perspective can orient us to policy solutions that address the institutions that inhibit and exacerbate sexual violence. Establishing specific objectives targeting issues like CRSV and encouraging legislation with specific and consistent funding requirements for counter-CRSV initiatives may help bridge the gap between policy goals and implementation. Research shows that despite underrepresentation and systemic marginalization, women spearhead human rights and gender equality policymaking. Therefore, including more diverse female voices is vital to successful policymaking. The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers an insight into how political, social, and cultural conditions in an ongoing conflict produces CRSV.  More closely examining these distinct sociopolitical elements in conjunction with gender is a crucial step in alleviating the burden women in conflict zones bear.

[1] This piece refers to women in a cis-heteronormative perspective. However, this does not negate the realities and unique suffering of transgender women, transgender men, and other gender non-conforming individuals in conflict zones.

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