Israeli lawyer ‘betrayed’ by world women’s groups

Israeli lawyer ‘betrayed’ by world women’s groups

For Jewish News February 2024

One of Israel’s leading lawyers and feminists has said she feels “betrayed” by the reluctance of international women’s organisations to speak out about Israeli women who were sexually abused during the Hamas terror attacks of October 7 last year.

But Ayelet Razin Bet Or, speaking to an audience at Hendon Synagogue last week, insists that “being silent is not an option”, and she continues to raise the issue whenever and wherever she can, travelling to the US and Canada before her London visit. She was brought to the UK by the Human Chain project.

Razin Bet Or, most recently chief executive of the Israeli Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women, served as legal adviser and head of policy for the country’s Association of Assistance Centres for Victims of Sexual Assault.

She also led an Israeli advocacy group which spelled out to officials and delegates at the United Nations the grotesque horrors of sexual abuse carried out by Hamas — on women, children, and even some men. She asked her audience to join her in “bearing witness” to what had happened.

Speaking about the women who were attacked on October 7, Razin Bet Or said: “Women’s bodies were part of the battlefield. They became part of the spoils of war”. What had been learned about gender-based violence, she said, “involved not only rape, but also mutilation, harassment, touching of intimate body parts, parading naked or half-naked women in the streets of Gaza.”

But in gathering evidence, a shell-shocked Israel had initially treated the ravaged kibbutzim and the Nova party as “a war zone rather than a crime scene”. There were also understandable problems as a result of the halachic instruction for speedy burials, something which the bereaved families also wanted. Evidence, the women advocates think, may often have been buried with the victims.

She made it clear that Israel had “very few” direct testimonies from victims. “Many survivors had and have many barriers to cross, before they can talk about how they were assaulted. What we do have is four women and one man who approached social services [in Israel] and identified themselves as victims — these were people from the Nova party.

“In addition there are two testimonies from hostages; there is a female officer who said that every time she was alone in a room with a terrorist, he would repeatedly tell her to take her clothes off. She somehow found the strength to resist him, and didn’t do that, but this was his demand. Another released hostage has talked about being touched in her intimate body parts. Those are the direct indications that we have”. The army, during its ground assault in Gaza, had found written material in Arabic of Hebrew phrases such as “spread your legs” or “get your clothes off”, leaving no doubt about the intention of the Hamas attackers.

Razin Bet Or said there were also eyewitness accounts. “I know of more than seven witness testimonies to rapes and gang rapes, all at the Nova party, and all of whom [the raped] were murdered after the rapes. There are three testimonies from released hostages, including things told to them by hostages who are still in Gaza”.

One doctor, she said, had spoken of the “fear” in a released hostage’s eyes when he gave her “the results that she was not pregnant and that she did not have HIV. She didn’t say she was assaulted — but it was there”.

Razin Bet Or said there was a huge amount of video footage still undergoing analysis by special IDF units. The problem, however, was that “this material is being viewed by people looking for hostages and identifying terrorists. They’re not looking for what I’m looking for — indications of gender-based violence. I do have access to some of this material” — but, she said, because she herself did not understand Arabic, she was missing the details of the conversations between terrorists.

However, she revealed that as a result of her advocacy, she had been able to help devise questions, designed to reveal sexual abuse, when officers of the Shabak were interrogating captured terrorists. “The Shabak know how to ask about terror attacks, but not about sexual assault”, she said.

The lawyer said that it was “very important” when telling the stories of the sexual abuse that “it was not some terrorist who flipped because of drugs. It was clearly systematic, pre-meditated — this was what Hamas came to do.” She added that diaspora Jews and Israelis alike had to “bear witness” and tell the stories, “because there are so many who are not here to tell themselves.”

Returning to her mantra of “being silent is not an option”, Razin Bet Or insisted: “It’s not an option for us — and it’s not an option for them — the international community — not to respond to our demands. October 7 was a ripple in many parts of my identity — as a Jew, as a mother — but also as a feminist.

“I feel deeply betrayed by organisations such as MeToo or UN Women. I truly believed in the solidarity, the sisterhood. I myself protested many times on behalf of Ukrainian women, Yazidi women… I flew to Aya Napa in Cyprus to protest about the British girl who was raped by Israeli teenagers. I was there. But then when it happens to us — suddenly there’s ‘context’, we need to prove what took place. First we have to recognise the suffering of the Palestinian people. It’s a conditional recognition. I’m still a feminist — I just feel they changed the rules on me.”

  • 12 February, 2024