Women in Gaza Women in Gaza. Photo: Joe Catron on Flickr

Sexual abuse is too serious to be treated as a justification for war, argues Lindsey German 

‘I say to the women’s rights organisations, to the human rights organisations: You’ve heard of the rape of Israeli women, horrible atrocities, sexual mutilation – where the hell are you? I expect all civilised leaders, governments, nations, to speak up against this atrocity.’

These were the words of Benjamin Netanyahu this week, following a session at the UN where Israel put forward its case that there were a number of terrible rapes during the 7 October attacks. It speaks volumes that he singles out women’s and human-rights organisations for criticism, since the latter in particular are organisations who have come under attack from the Israeli government because they have criticised its collective punishment of civilians in Gaza.

All such organisations condemn rape and other sexual assaults and I have seen none who in any way justified such attacks. So Netanyahu’s denunciation is at best misplaced, and at worst is trying to defend his own actions by deflecting blame. It is impossible to know exactly what happened on that day, but it is possible to try to look at the context in which sexual violence and rape takes places in such situations. 

The stories of rape by witnesses of the 7 October attacks in Israel are painful to read. They tell of women subject to rape before being killed, of some of those abducted bleeding or unclothed, and of the trauma of those who witnessed these attacks.

Such actions cannot be justified, but they are sadly common in war situations. The US feminist Susan Brownmiller wrote extensively on this question in her pathbreaking 1975 book Against our Will, where she highlighted rape and sexual assault as an important weapon of war in order to subjugate the female population and to create fear among the wider society. During the Second World War it was used by the Nazis in Russia and Eastern Europe against both the Jewish and non-Jewish populations. In 1945, there were widespread rapes of women in Berlin and Vienna by the Russian troops.

The Vietnam war saw numerous examples of US troops raping Vietnamese women, often as gang rapes. In the 1971 war between Pakistan and what became Bangladesh, an estimated 400,000 women were raped, mainly Muslims but also Hindus and Sikhs.

We know from more recent times that Iraqi and Afghan women have been raped by occupying soldiers. We also know of the terrible torture and sexual abuse carried out by US guards on Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison under the occupation.

There is enough evidence therefore that rape is an integral part of warfare. If warfare is an extreme and violent form of capitalist social relations, then so too rape is an extreme and violent form of sexual relations in capitalist society. And if women are seen by society as in some way subjugated or inferior – as they are – then this encourages violent assault on them. If also they are seen as the property of men, then those who want to harm a particular group of men will see the possibility of harming ‘their property’ as justified. 

A climate of war also acts to dehumanise its victims, so that the ‘normal’ rules do not apply and therefore justifying killing, looting, and rape. 

We don’t know the extent of the rapes on 7 October for a range of reasons, and we should be wary of some claims that we have heard from the Israeli government and military aboutevents on that day, which have turned out not to be true. But we should recognise that it is likely that rape did happen.

It’s also important to put the attacks in Israel in context. This is a highly conflicted, violent society, a militarised settler-colonial state which oppresses the national-liberation aspirations of the Palestinian people. The apartheid nature of the state is such that oppression is factored into all areas of life. The reality of the occupied territories is stark: Gaza even before the present bombardment was like a prison, under siege for nearly two decades. The West Bank is subject to increasing IDF and settler violence, aimed at ethnic cleansing.

In addition, the violence of the Israeli state towards the Palestinians includes mass imprisonment, often without charge, and where there have been repeated accusations of rape and sexual assault on the prisoners. Young prisoners have been assaulted in Israeli jails; women stripped naked and humiliated in Hebron; regular sexual assaults and abuse are reported for women prisoners. None of this is new: the Nakba of 1948, when Palestinians were driven from their land, witnessed rapes by the IDF, for example at the Safsaf massacre, where the men were bound and shot, and some women raped. 

No one can or should justify rape and sexual assault. But that should be a principle applied across the board, rather than used by Netanyahu or anyone else to justify the atrocities now being carried out in Gaza by his armed forces – and backed by the British and US governments, who have repeatedly used women’s rights and ‘humanitarian intervention’ to support their wars. The War on Terror was justified by such as Hilary Clinton and Cherie Blair on these grounds, with disastrous outcomes for the women of Afghanistan and Iraq. We should refute Netanyahu’s attempts to weaponise the issue today.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.