The backlash over U.N. Women’s response to Hamas’s attack on October 7

It took U.N. Women eight weeks before they explicitly condemned Hamas for sexual violence against women on Oct. 7.
CNN anchor Bianna Golodryga (L) questions U.N. Women deputy director Sarah Hendriks (R) on November 29 about the agency’s failure to explicitly condemn Hamas for sexual violence against women on October 7.

Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of graphic violence and sexual assault.

Since Hamas’s attack on Israel on Oct. 7 in which over 1,200 people were killed, there have been various reports, including photographic and video evidence, of rape and sexual mutilation perpetrated by Hamas terrorists, particularly against women. 

Despite these alarming reports from Israeli officials, ZAKA workers, eyewitnesses and victims, U.N. Women — the United Nations agency focused on protecting and advocating for women and girls across the globe — remained silent on the issue for over 50 days following the attack. 

It took them eight weeks before they explicitly condemned Hamas for committing these acts, on December 1. Their silence persisted even though the agency had previously made statements concerning the safety of Palestinian women and girls.

In recent weeks, there has been mounting public pressure on U.N. Women and other international women’s organizations to directly condemn the violence and Hamas. 

Here’s what we know about the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas against Israeli women, what U.N. Women has said so far and the growing pressure on the organization to take a firmer stand.

What we know about Hamas’s sexual assault against Israeli women

Shortly after Oct. 7, video footage and photographs emerged showing acts of sexual violence, including rape, perpetrated by Hamas against women.

Some of this footage was captured by firsthand witnesses and medical and rescue officials at the scene, while others were taken by terrorists glorifying the mutilation they committed. 

One video showed a woman with blood pouring from between her legs being pulled, alive, from a vehicle in Gaza.

Another video depicted the naked corpse of a woman facedown in the back of a truck. In an interrogation with a captured Hamas fighter, he stated that his comrades were instructed to kill as many people and rape as many women as possible.

In the two months following the attack, Israeli officials and eyewitnesses have provided open testimonies about what they witnessed on Oct. 7 or saw in their examinations of the victims’ bodies. 

A disturbing pattern noted in these testimonies is that the victims’ corpses of victims were often found unclothed with broken pelvic bones, showing that they were raped before being brutally murdered.

The body of one woman had “nails and different objects in her female organs,” Simcha Greinman, a volunteer who helped collect the remains of victims, said in a speech at the U.N. headquarters in New York earlier this month.

Another victim’s genitals were so mutilated that “we couldn’t identify if it was a man or a woman.”

Meni Binyamin, the head of the International Crime Investigations Unit of the Israeli police, said that his department documented dozens of “violent rape incidents, the most extreme sexual abuses we have seen.” 

One IDF member who helped prepare the bodies of female victims for burial said that several had sustained gunshots to their faces and heads. There were multiple instances where victims “were shot in the crotch, intimate parts, vagina, or were shot in the breast.” 

At the U.N. event earlier this month, Yael Richert, an Israeli police superintendent, shared video footage in which a paramedic stated the victims he saw were intentionally shot in their genitals. 

“A survivor from the Nova rave party testified, ‘Everything was an apocalypse of corpses, girls without any clothes on, without tops, without underwear, people cut in half, butchered, some were beheaded,’” Reichert said during her U.N. testimony.

During a recent press briefing, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that the breakdown of the temporary ceasefire was partly due to Hamas’s refusal to release the remaining 15 women hostages. 

“They [Hamas] don’t want those women to be able to talk about what happened to them during their time in custody,” Miller said.

Are sexual violence and mutilation war crimes?

Yes. According to international law, sexual violence and mutilation are considered war crimes when committed during an armed conflict.

In 2008, the U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 1820 affirming that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes [if done as an act of war], crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”

War crimes are serious violations of the laws and customs of war outlined in the Geneva Conventions and other U.N. documents. These regulations are designed to protect civilians and soldiers who are no longer engaged in fighting. 

Examples of war crimes include intentional attacks on civilians, killing prisoners of war, using civilians as human shields, mistreating bodies and taking hostages, all of which Hamas committed during its Oct. 7 attack and the subsequent war.

“Hamas has committed a long list of crimes in this attack for which have been documented, including the killing of civilians, taking civilians captive, and abusing the bodies of civilians and soldiers,” Professor Yuval Shany of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said.

The U.N. has accused both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during the current war. However, U.N. Women has not labeled Hamas’ actions as war crimes.

“The atrocities perpetrated by Palestinian armed groups on 7 October were heinous, they were war crimes — as is the continued holding of hostages,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in November.

“The collective punishment by Israel of Palestinian civilians is also a war crime, as is unlawful forcible evacuation of civilians,” he added.

On November 29, about eight weeks after the attack, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres broke his silence on the reports of sexual violence, saying that these accounts “must be vigorously investigated and prosecuted.”

What has U.N. Women’s response been?

Since the start of the war, U.N. Women have advocated for a ceasefire and humanitarian relief for women and girls in Gaza. The agency did not speak out against the sexual violence until November 24, seven weeks after the attacks occurred.

U.N. Women initially posted a statement on Instagram condemning “the brutal attacks by Hamas on October 7,” but quickly deleted it. Their revised statement called for the release of hostages as well as a “permanent humanitarian ceasefire,” and did not mention or condemn Hamas.

The next day, the group posted another statement on Instagram saying social media saying it was “alarmed by reports of gender-based violence on 7 October,” but again failing to mention or condemn Hamas. 

In a CNN interview on November 29, anchor Bianna Golodryga questioned U.N. Women deputy director Sarah Hendriks about the agency’s lack of response. 

Hendriks refused to explicitly condemn Hamas, saying that U.N. Women was “deeply alarmed at the disturbing reports of gender-based and sexual violence on October 7… We absolutely unequivocally condemn all forms of violence against women and girls.”

She added that the U.N. Women supports an “impartial, independent investigation.”

In the face of growing pressure, on Dec. 1, nearly two months after the attack, U.N. Women released a statement denouncing “the brutal attacks by Hamas on Israel on 7 October.”

“We are alarmed by the numerous accounts of gender-based atrocities and sexual violence during those attacks,” the group added.

The statement went on to call for “the immediate and unconditional release of all remaining hostages and a humanitarian ceasefire.”

In another statement on Dec. 4, the group said it had been “closely following reports of brutal acts of gender-based violence against women in Israel since they first came to light.”

“We believe a full investigation is essential so that perpetrators at all sides can be held accountable and justice can be served,” the statement continued. 

However, U.N. Women’s statements were widely regarded as inadequate and delayed.

“UN Women’s message is weak and late when it comes after almost two months of silence and ignoring the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and sexual crimes committed by the terrorist organization, Hamas,” Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen wrote on X on Dec. 2.

Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, who served for 12 years on the U.N. Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, told Haaretz she felt “betrayed” by the U.N. response.

“By being silent here, they’re not only failing us Israeli women, they’re undermining the whole system. They lose credibility,” she said. “They are also providing ammunition to all those who are already engaged in a denial campaign.”

The group’s reluctance to call out Hamas reflects a double standard. In contrast, over the past two years since the Taliban reclaimed control of Afghanistan, U.N. Women has directly criticized the terrorist organization by name for committing various war crimes. 

Growing pressure on U.N. Women to take a firmer stand

Many public figures have deemed U.N. Women’s response to Hamas’ attacks inadequate. 

Sheryl Sandberg, the former chief operating officer of Meta, urged U.N. Women to condemn Hamas, saying at the U.N. event in New York:

“The world has to decide who to believe. Do we believe the Hamas spokesperson who said that ‘rape is forbidden’ and therefore couldn’t have possibly happened on October 7, or do we believe the women whose bodies tell us how they spent the last minutes of their lives?”

Also speaking at the U.N. event, Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Gilad Erdan said, “To these organizations, Israeli women are not women. The rape of Israelis is not an act of rape. Their silence has been deafening.” 

Erdan said he sent photo evidence of Hamas’s sexual violence against women to U.N. Women, but the agency did not respond.

As the event progressed, outside the U.N. headquarters in New York, hundreds of people, including diplomats and women’s activists, protested against U.N. Women’s insufficient response, chanting, “Me too unless you are a Jew.” 

New York Democratic Senator Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also spoke out during the U.N. presentation, saying that watching the raw footage of sexual violence on Oct. 7 “takes your breath away with the sheer level of evil it depicts.”

“When I saw the list of women’s rights organizations that said nothing, I nearly choked,” Gillibrand said. “Where is the solidarity for women in this country and in this world to stand up for our mothers, our sisters and our daughters?”

“The United Nations must denounce Hamas as a terrorist organization that uses rape as a weapon of war,” the senator added. 

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a news conference this past week: “I say to the women’s rights organizations, to the human rights organizations, you’ve heard of the rape of Israeli women, horrible atrocities, sexual mutilation — where the hell are you?” 

On November 29, more than 80 members of Congress from across the aisle signed a letter — spearheaded by Reps. Young Kim (R-Calif.) and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D-Fla.) — criticizing U.N. Women’s response: 

“The failure by U.N. Women to publicly stand up for Israeli women and condemn Hamas’ systematic atrocities undermines U.N. Women and highlights its one-sided approach,” the letter read, adding that U.N. Women was “falling short” of its important mission.

“Meanwhile, U.N. Women continues to repeatedly call for a permanent ceasefire under humanitarian pretenses which would serve to benefit Hamas,” the members of Congress added.

Representative Lois Frankel of Florida, who leads the Democratic Women’s Caucus and is Jewish, said she’s “been internally raging for about two months” about the situation. 

“There is antisemitism involved, and there are some folks who are more interested in portraying the loss of life in Gaza than highlighting the complete inhumanity and viciousness and brutality of Hamas,” she told The New York Times. 

Frankel plans to introduce a House resolution condemning the use of sexual violence by Hamas:

Democratic Senator Jacky Rosen of Nevada also criticized U.N. Women for its “failure to immediately and unequivocally stand up for Israeli women.”

The U.N. and other organizations, “including several on the far left, have chosen to dismiss, downplay or outright deny Hamas’s widespread use of sexual violence and rape against Israeli women on Oct. 7,” Rosen told The New York Times.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also spoke out, saying that all forms of sexual violence during war should be universally condemned. 

“As a global community, we must respond to weaponized sexual violence, where ever it happens, with absolute condemnation,” the 2016 presidential candidate said. “There can be no justifications and no excuses. Rape as a weapon of war is a crime against humanity.”

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