Dr. Cochav Elkayam-Levy took a deep breath after warning the audience about the graphic horrors she was about to relate. Then she described just some of the overwhelming visual evidence that has emerged of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel: a young concert-goer, stripped from the waist down, frozen by rigor mortis into a spread-eagle position, her body partially burned. A young woman, similarly exposed in death, torn underwear hanging off one naked leg. Rape victims paraded through the streets of Gaza, blood gushing from between their legs.
The list went on. And on. Compiled from various sources — Hamas footage, first responders, workers who handle corpses, survivor accounts — these testimonials formed the basis of a webinar this week entitled, “The Unspeakable Terror: Gender-Based Violence on Oct. 7.” Organized by Jewish students at Harvard Medical, Dental, Law, and Business schools, it accrued more than 4,500 registrants and, in the days after, more than 20,000 viewers.
Why such great interest in the horrors perpetrated by Hamas against women and girls on Oct. 7? We believe it reflects the relative lack of attention until now to the brutal sexual and gender-based violence that took place as part of Hamas’s assaults.
Despite the circulation of the evidence Dr. Elkayam-Levy shared, worldwide organizations dedicated to women’s and human rights have stayed largely silent.
“The evidence is undeniable, yet we find ourselves fighting a dual battle,” said Elkayam-Levy, chair of the Israeli Civil Commission on Oct. 7th Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children. “One against these atrocities and another against global silence. And we see the same mechanism of denial that we recognize from individual rape.”
Others share her concern, and a petition calling on UN Women to address the crimes against Israeli women is taking on momentum, with more than 180,000 signatures; the hashtag #MeToo_UNless_UR_a_Jew has been trending on X.
As a Harvard School of Dental Medicine student who helped organize the event, and a Harvard Medical School associate professor of medicine and psychiatry who moderated that panel, we found hope in some of the experts’ reports: The act of rape, once widely accepted as part of the “spoils of war,” is now recognized as a prosecutable war crime, even a crime against humanity when it is perpetrated systematically.
But other statements were heartbreaking, including that most or all of Oct. 7 rape victims were either killed or abducted, and are thus not able to tell their stories to the world. Webinar participants said that the forensic evidence shows extreme sexual violence, including genital mutilation and assaults brutal enough to break pelvic bones. Some accounts describe abject sadism like cutting off a woman’s breast and tossing it as a plaything.
Perhaps the most poignant and vexing comment at the event came from a physician who posed an age-old question: How could they? There are rumors the attackers were intoxicated with drugs, the physician said, but “even with drugs, how can someone do such an act that is not human?”
The visual and forensic findings add to the urgent need to provide medical care to the hostages now held in Gaza, Dr. Devora Bauman of Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem said in the webinar.
Rape victims often have genital injuries, she said, and severe vaginal tearing, if not repaired, can lead to death. Care for pregnant and postpartum women is essential; there are reports that at least one hostage has given birth while in Hamas captivity and others face the very real possibility of impregnation by their rapists.
Just as these Israeli experts on the webinar are feeling abandoned by their colleagues in the global women’s rights communities, so are the families of the female hostages held in Gaza. “Where are you? Where is your voice? Why is it not heard?” said Kinneret Stern, a relative of a hostage, told Reuters.
UN Women has issued a report on girls and women in Gaza, but it does not mention the Israeli victims of Hamas’ attacks. The Global Fund for Women, despite making a blanket statement “condemn[ing] the violence of Israel and Hamas against civilians,” has focused its efforts on calling for a cease-fire and drawing attention to the plight of Palestinian women, without mentioning Israeli victims of Hamas. The NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security issued a statement on the plight of Palestinian women without any mention of Israeli women, hostages, or sexual assault attacks.
The Israeli experts on the webinar reported on testimonies from captured terrorists and documents found on the deceased — that the attackers received special religious dispensation to abuse women “in order to instill fear in the Israeli population.” If sadism was an intentional strategy, that offers further explanation for what the terrorists did to women, children, and men.
The world outcry against rape and war crimes must be resounding and universal. The collective response must be unequivocal and consistent. As a collective, we must define and uphold our societal principles of justice and morality.
On the webinar, Orit Sulitzeanu, who leads Israel’s association of rape crisis centers, shared her sense that the world changed irrevocably on Oct. 7 — for everyone. “It’s not just terror, it’s sadism,” she said, inflicted on civilians in their homes. “I want the people listening to understand that this could happen everywhere. And if you don’t fight it, it can happen even to you.”
Dr. Elizabeth Gaufberg is an associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and a physician and educator at The Cambridge Health Alliance. Cami Tussie is a third-year student at Harvard School of Dental Medicine and president of the HMS/HSDM Maimonides Society, a Jewish student organization.