A Violent Denial: Combating Silence Around Hamas’ Sexual Violence and Preventing Future War Crimes

Combating the silence around Hamas’ sexual violence on and following Oct. 7, an Israeli feminist and the commission she founded are working to seek justice and address and prevent future war crimes.

A family member of an Israeli hostage gives a speech in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2024. Family members of the 134 Israeli hostages held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip for 160 days marched and demonstrated in the streets. (Matan Golan / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

On the morning of Oct. 7, 2023, as Cochav Elkayam-Levy sat by her father’s hospital bed in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Hamas combatants breached the southern Israeli border, killed some 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages. Women, children and the elderly were not spared.

Two days later, Elkayam-Levy, a postdoctoral fellow in the Leonard Davis Institute Program on Gender, Conflict Resolution and Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, returned to the lecture hall where she teaches international law, human and women’s rights and feminist theory. Over the course of that week, images and videos from the terror attack and testimonies of first responders and medical examiners streamed in. These included evidence of brutal sexual violence and gender-based atrocities.

As the reports continued to pour in, Elkayam-Levy waited. But to her devastation, the international organizations she trusted most remained uncannily quiet. The United Nations did not issue a statement. No words on the horrific sexual violence came from U.N. Women, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) or any other committee, department or independent expert she trusted. Half a year later, the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership still has not issued a statement.

Condemnations and calls for action by international organizations like the U.N. typically arrive swiftly, many within just a few days of such an event. Yet the U.N. Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict did not make an official visit until Jan. 29, 2024, and did not publish its report until March 4, nearly five months after the Oct. 7 attack.

Only by simultaneously investigating individual acts of sexual abuse and mapping possible patterns of those acts will we be able to hold accountable the wartime rapists, as well as those people who enable and protect those male rapists.

Cynthia Enloe, ‘Twelve Feminist Lessons of War’

Elkayam-Levy perceived the muted response as a failure to grasp the full gravity of the assault. She told Ms., “I thought very naively I could do something about it, especially with regard to war crimes against women.”

On Oct. 15, a mere eight days after the attack, Elkayam-Levy, alongside a small group of volunteers—scholars versed in international law and human rights, and leaders of women’s advocacy groups—gathered to inaugurate the Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children, an independent nongovernmental alliance committed to meticulously documenting war crimes and advocating for justice on behalf of women, children and families.

The commission’s founding mission was to advance justice by collecting and providing credible information to international bodies like the U.N. and the International Criminal Court.

Their earliest actions included three petitions.

  • The first was a letter to U.N. institutions, including U.N. Women, and other human rights organizations, signed by more than 160 human rights experts and law professors.
  • The second was another letter to U.N. Women signed by nearly 70 women’s rights organizations, condemning the U.N.’s lack of response to the first letter. The signatories demanded unequivocal condemnation of the Hamas attack and immediate action to mediate the release of hostages.
  • The third was a civil petition signed by thousands of women addressed to the U.N., U.N. Women, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the U.N. Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls, and multiple U.N. special rapporteurs. It collected and summarized all available information; detailed the initial legal grounds for prosecution by international courts for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide; and urged immediate condemnation of the terrorists and action in support of victims and hostages. The petition has been signed by more than 3,500 people, including international legal and human rights experts, and was submitted to the U.N. by Elkayam-Levy personally and formally.

The petitions were not acknowledged, even after Elkayam-Levy delivered remarks to the Committee on CEDAW on the urgent need for the international community’s response.

International legal and human rights expert Jacqui True, named one of the 100 most influential persons in gender policy for her work on gender-based violence, was CC’ed on the email. She “replied all” to request the addition of her name on the report and to urge action. Still, there was no response.

Elkayam-Levy said she felt a deep shock along with a sense of being isolated and abandoned by the institutions she believed in. The silence was incomprehensible to her. As she explained to Ms., while many of her colleagues had long been cynical of the U.N., she herself was not. Until then.

“It is something that is hard to understand, hard to comprehend,” she said. “I never imagined those organizations denying it or those [organizations] not offering help to document this, to guide us through what we should do—how to help survivors, how to help the victims.”

Elkayam-Levy experienced the silence as a violent denial, as if Oct. 7 had been wiped from time. The same denial that usually accompanies individual claims of sexual violence, she said, was inflicted collectively on the victims of the attack—and not by the usual suspects, but by the very institutions erected to eradicate conflict-related sexual violence.

If international law would not protect or support victims of war crimes—a failure, Elkayam-Levy emphasized, that should be worrying to other countries and other survivors—who would?

Cochav Elkayam-Levy meets with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in Jerusalem on Nov. 23, 2023. (Nicolas Maeterlinck / Belga / AFP via Getty Images)

This weighty realization led Elkayam-Levy and her team to stop thinking that their mission was to solicit action and assistance from the U.N. Their mission shifted radically to doing the work themselves. The Civil Commission was reorganized around three essential units:

  • an extensive archive to document atrocities,
  • an international law division composed of legal experts and international rights organizations, and
  • a global policy department to develop strategic approaches to address and prevent future war crimes.

In addition to devoting her energies to the organization and staffing of the commission, Elkayam-Levy found herself answering calls to speak to the events of Oct. 7 and its aftermath.

In December, she visited the U.S. with a delegation of future women leaders from Israel. She gave testimony at Harvard University, spoke at a protest outside the U.N. in Washington, D.C., and was invited to meet with White House officials. Afterward, she agreed to speak with anyone who would listen—from CNN to various podcasts. It is in large part thanks to Elkayam-Levy’s persistence that the U.N. finally visited Israel and found “reasonable grounds” to believe that Hamas had committed war crimes, including conflict-related sexual violence in Israel and on hostages in Gaza.

According to one of her close associates (who asked to remain anonymous), multiple feminist scholars turned down requests for interviews with Elkayam-Levy and her traveling companions because they did not want to view the collected materials or they did not want to talk publicly due to the deep polarization over the status of the Palestinian territories and Israel’s response to the attack. This associate described Elkayam-Levy as courageous for speaking out when no one else would at the time.

In March, Elkayam-Levy received a phone call from Israel’s minister of education. To her surprise, the minister told her that she was to be awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for Solidarity for “her dedication to raising awareness both nationally and internationally, [and] establishing a civilian commission to protect human and women’s rights.”

The public announcement was met with public denouncements. Elkayam-Levy was accused of inaccurate research, flawed methodologies, opportunism and propagandism, as well as attempting to prevent the visit by the U.N. secretary general’s envoy—though such an inquiry was what she had vocally solicited on the international stage since October. Two of the examples of sexual violence she shared in multiple interviews were found to be untrue, and this was presented by her harshest critics as evidence of fraudulent Israeli propaganda. Especially “damning” was her familial relationship to an uncle who serves on the cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—a cabinet she has loudly and vigorously opposed since its establishment in December 2022.

As an activist organizer and a legal, human rights and feminist scholar, Elkayam-Levy was caught between competing demands. As a scholar, she needed time to collect, verify and evaluate facts, but as an activist and advocate, she felt a moral imperative to speak out. She describes the challenges she faced as “beyond me,” but she nevertheless responded to both conflicting appeals. The urgency of the crisis and the horrific evidence she collected compelled her to speak, and she insists she spoke based on the status of the knowledge that she had. Action is always a risk, requiring decisions in a milieu of partial ignorance, but the necessity of action in the face of injustice is one of feminism’s core beliefs.

Prior to Oct. 7, Elkayam-Levy was actively involved in movement building and legal advocacy for women’s rights in Israel. As an adviser to the National Security Council, for example, she led the development of government guidelines that incorporated gender thinking when formulating recommendations for national policy in emergency and crisis situations. The 2022 report “Gender Mainstreaming During Emergencies” was adopted in a historic government resolution requiring increased representation of women in decision-making positions and consideration of the impact of policies on women and men from different populations.

After the establishment of the 37th government of Israel in late 2022, Elkayam-Levy emerged as a staunch critic of Netanyahu’s attack on women’s rights in Israel, organizing protests and writing public statements and reports. She co-wrote a position paper on the violation of women’s rights following the regime change. The report criticized Netanyahu’s proposed retreat from the Istanbul Convention, a robust tool for addressing violence against women and domestic violence; the subordination of women’s rights to political and religious fundamentalist extremists; the restriction of women’s freedom of dress, movement and association; the abolishment of legal protections; the exclusion of women from decision- making positions; gender segregation; and ethnonational segregation between Arabs and Jews. The report emphasized the great harm to all Israeli women, but especially Arab-Israeli women.

The Civil Commission is deeply committed to revealing the truth of what happened on Oct. 7. Its director of archives and documentation, Elinor Kroitoru, shared with Ms. the complex challenges it faces. “It feels like a historical mission,” she said, “but it is a live situation in which every day more is coming out. Everything is still happening.”

In response to criticisms regarding the debunked examples shared by Elkayam-Levy, Kroitoru insists on the importance of context. In the beginning, she pointed out, it was very easy to make mistakes because of the onslaught of digitally born materials in a crisis situation. Six months later, the Civil Commission is better organized and more methodical, partnering with multiple tech companies, for example, to authenticate, catalog and securely house materials. It has hired a team of forensic specialists and is building methodologies that will be effective and safe.

One of the biggest challenges, according to Kroitoru, has been balancing the needs of the project with the mental health of the volunteers, conducting the investigation. Protective guidelines were put in place when the commission first started documenting the atrocities. To lessen the psychological impact of the materials on the archivists, the work was temporally limited, conducted in rotations and practiced in teams. Kroitoru is now building on these methods by exploring the use of AI in the initial cataloging, and hiring resilient and experienced human catalogers who can stay the course.

When Elkayam-Levy spoke with Ms., she prefaced the interview by acknowledging the complexity of the situation. The political context of Israel under Netanyahu, the long-standing ethnonational conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and the increasing diminishment of women’s rights in Israel and around the world all preceded Oct. 7 and contribute to the challenges faced by advocates for justice for women today.

In the highly polarized political and media landscape, claims of rape have attracted strange friends and unfamiliar foes. Conservative media outlets, political pundits and leaders—none of whom, as one might put it, ever gave a fig about women’s rights before—have fastened on to and sensationalized rape and sexual violence to criticize the left for their silence and to justify war.

In response, many progressives have loudly denounced or quietly downplayed claims of rape and brutal attacks against women, children and families as Israeli propaganda meant to justify genocide. Both characterizations weaponize the sexual violence on Oct. 7 and undermine justice for victims of conflict-related sexual violence across all borders—past, present and future.

The verification of the gender-based violence on Oct. 7 has been made more difficult by international investigators’ lack of access and Israeli investigators’ lack of foreign support. While Israel has allowed entrance to journalists and international organizations, government authorities have limited access.

According to Belkis Wille of Human Rights Watch, who spent three weeks in Israel following the attack, Israeli authorities complicated the organization’s investigation by not responding to requests to travel to impacted communities or interview personnel who arrived first at the various scenes of violence. The state’s hindrance of investigative processes by independent organizations only stokes the skepticism and criticism of Israel’s alleged “propaganda campaign.”

It will likely be years before we have a better sense of what happened on Oct. 7 and what justice might look like. Despite the gains in international recognition and systems of justice that women have fought so hard to establish over the past 30 years, beginning with Yugoslavia and Rwanda, none of those systems of recognition and support are available to the women in Israel who are advocating for justice. The resources and data on which any future justice will be based must first be collected, verified and organized.

This is the ground that Elkayam-Levy is trying to establish with her independent, nongovernmental Civil Commission—the ground for global recognition, independent inquiries, international prosecution and new global policies.

Feminist lessons of war are traumatically and often fatally difficult to come by. In her 2023 book, Twelve Feminist Lessons of War, Cynthia Enloe offers a list that includes “women’s wars are not men’s wars,” “wounds are gendered” and “feminists organize while war is raging.” She declares that “feminist lessons are for everyone.”

Cochav Elkayam-Levy is still figuring out the feminist lessons to be learned from the Oct. 7 attack. As she has come to accept, this will be her life’s work.

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of Ms. magazine. Join the Ms. community today and you’ll get the Summer issue delivered straight to your mailbox.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Stacy Keltner is a first-generation graduate, writer and professor based in Atlanta. Find her on Instagram, TikTok or Twitter.