Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari.

"Hamas' sexual violence was a planned and systematic attack and falls under the definition of crimes against humanity"

Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari has played a significant role in fighting for international recognition of Hamas’ sexual crimes on October 7. Even after briefing the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and bringing the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict to investigate, she says that her fight continues

On October 7th, Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, a professor at Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law where she founded and leads the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women, was on a lecture tour abroad. She was staying with her son who lives in Copenhagen, after giving a lecture at a university. "We were planning to go to synagogue in the morning, but then my son and daughter-in-law woke me up and said that a war had begun. We were in disbelief, but the next day, as the details of the events began to emerge and I understood that towns and villages in the south had been occupied, and that terrorists were in homes and the [Nova] party area for hours without interruption, I immediately suspected that serious sexual assaults were taking place."
"I served for twelve years on a UN committee overseeing the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), including as vice-chair, and headed its investigative body. I had many encounters with survivors from disaster areas such as the Yazidis in Syria and women from Africa, regions that seemed distant and irrelevant, and it was always shocking to hear what they went through, and now I understand that it happened to us too. Rumors and videos started circulating, like the one of the young woman abducted with blood-stained pants, but mainly, the mere fact that the terrorists were there for hours led to the conclusion that it could not be otherwise, just like what ISIS did to Yazidi women in Syria and the Russians did to Ukrainian women, why wouldn't Hamas do it here? They had the means and the opportunity."
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מגזין נשים 2024 פרופ' רות הלפרין קדרי ראשת מרכז רקמן לקידום מעמד האישה בפקולטה למשפטים באוניברסיטת בר אילן
מגזין נשים 2024 פרופ' רות הלפרין קדרי ראשת מרכז רקמן לקידום מעמד האישה בפקולטה למשפטים באוניברסיטת בר אילן
Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari.
(Credit: Alex Kolomoiski)
In the days following October 7th, Halperin-Kaddari reached out to every organization related to the UN human rights system that she was part of, as well as to Pramila Patten, a former colleague who served with her on CEDAW, who now serves as the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. "She is the authority in the UN on weaponization of women's bodies during war, and I told her, 'We need you here.' The first thing she asked me was 'Do you know that this really happened?' Initially, I was shocked by the question, but then I understood that we must know for sure — based on credible information and not just on rumors and hearsay — that it did happen, in order to embark on this journey to expose the deeds."
What did you do?
"I called the head of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel (ARCCI), who told me that there had already been appeals to the centers and even to private therapists by women who were at the [Nova] party, and that was enough for me at this stage to start moving forward."
Halperin-Kaddari and Professor Frances Raday from the Hebrew University, who was also a member of CEDAW, together gathered signatures from about 800 international legal and gender experts to acknowledge Hamas's sex crimes and sent letters on the subject to a range of bodies, including CEDAW, which met on October 9th.
"We expected the committee to make a statement recognizing that Hamas committed sexual crimes and crimes against humanity and to condemn it, but their statement was weak and disappointing, and for me, it was a big blow, a real setback. Other UN bodies we appealed to were equally disappointing: the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council and UN Women. It took them about eight weeks just to use the words Hamas and sexual violence together, and mainly they dedicated statements to the tragedy of women and children in Gaza, without a word about Israeli women and not even about the hostages."
How do you explain this?
"There are several factors at play, the most significant being that from the second day of the war, all the world sees are images of destruction in Gaza. The horrors of October 7th have become a distant memory, and the horrific reality of the hostages doesn't get enough attention. The world already viewed Israel as the stronger party and the aggressor and the Palestinians as the victims, and very quickly this same narrative returned. Even in Israel, there was great hesitation to talk about the sexual violence, both for understandable reasons of not harming families and protecting their privacy, but also because we had no forensic evidence and survivors to testify. It isn’t that there aren’t survivors - there are, but many of them were taken hostage to Gaza, and those who survived and remained in Israel still aren't speaking, and it will take them a long time to be able to. And on top of all of this, of course, there is also antisemitism."
How many known cases of sexual assaults were there?
"I can repeat what the Ministry of Welfare officially announced: they received reports from four women and one man. And I know that there are more people who didn't turn to official authorities but to assistance centers and private therapists. The vast majority of those sexually assaulted were murdered and silenced forever."
At the same time, Halperin-Kaddari explains, she worked with her colleagues to get the authorities to recognize the mass assault that occurred. "All of the organizations needed to understand that this event was part of the catastrophe of October 7th, that gender-based violence took place and that this needs to be considered for both the system of treatment as well as the investigation - the interrogations, evidence collection, and gathering testimonies. It is a serious problem that forensic evidence wasn’t collected and bodies weren’t photographed."
When you contacted the authorities, was it still possible to salvage evidence?
"We did it in the first week, but we failed here in terms of collecting evidence. But it wasn't too late to identify survivors who needed treatment."
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מגזין נשים 2024 מפגינות נגד אלימות מינית במלחמת עזה בלונדון החודש
מגזין נשים 2024 מפגינות נגד אלימות מינית במלחמת עזה בלונדון החודש
Protestors in London against Hamas' sexual violence.
(Credit: Henry Nicholls/ AFP)
In November, the U.S. delegation to the UN invited Halperin-Kaddari to appear before the UN Security Council to discuss Hamas' sexual crimes. "I was already packed and ready to go, but at the last minute, the Chinese sabotaged it and I didn't fly. However, at this point, Israel understood that I could fill a unique role against these attempts to silence us, because I have a significant status and credibility in the international arena, and I can reach different entities. So, on behalf of the Foreign Ministry, I went to meet with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, and it was the first time he received a comprehensive briefing on the subject. I told him that I saw with my own eyes the video of the testimony given to police by the first eyewitness, who hid in the bushes at the [Nova] party and testified about a brutal gang rape she witnessed, as well as a terrorist carrying a naked corpse. The High Commissioner was shocked, and for two days, I had 11 meetings with ambassadors and their deputies and briefed them."
Were the police cooperative?
"Yes, they understood the importance, and that’s how I was exposed to more materials, images, videos, and evidence. It’s not like they shared the entire investigation file with me, but I gained access to materials that were not published at that stage so that I could speak with the highest international authorities and say 'I saw this with my own eyes, and this is verified and reliable material, no longer just hearsay.’ Because of this, I am able to advance Israel's narrative.
"The rule that guided me is to be cautious and not say anything I'm not convinced of and not speak about vast numbers. Because we don't know, and we won't know, and also to acknowledge that there is no forensic evidence, but we can connect all of the proof that has been accumulated to establish our case: that [the sexual violence] was a planned and systematic attack and falls under the definition of crimes against humanity in international law. I called upon the High Commissioner to acknowledge this, with the goal of eliciting a condemnation and disavowing Hamas as was the case with ISIS."
Was this a turning point in the struggle for recognition of Hamas's sexual crimes?
"I think it was a significant point. In parallel, there were other important developments, such as a webinar organized by the Harvard Medical School, in which several Israeli officials participated. It got tens of thousands of views in one night from all over the world, which made waves and had an impact on international media as well. There was also a press conference the police held for foreign media, where they explicitly discussed the sexual assaults, and CNN's important investigation which was followed by a large investigation by The New York Times."
Halperin-Kaddari mentions another significant event that took place in early December at the UN, when the Secretary-General spoke for the first time about the sexual assaults on October 7. "A week later, the hostage who had been released began to talk about it, and it was very significant because then the public began to talk about it more, at first quietly but with a louder voice as hostages recounted the assaults that took place and continue to occur."
At that point, Halperin-Kaddari guesses that she gave about 75 interviews to leading media outlets worldwide, and simultaneously helped promote Patten’s visit to Israel, who arrived here at the end of January with a particularly large ten-person team. "It's unprecedented for Israel to invite a UN official to conduct an investigation and it was done with full cooperation from all authorities in the country — the army, police, prosecutor’s office, the welfare and health ministries," she explains.
"Even before the visit, Patten issued two sharp statements condemning Hamas, spoke about the collective trauma following the sexual assaults, expressed great concern for the well-being of the hostages, and called for their immediate release. During the visit, which I accompanied her on, we went to Be’eri, the Nahal Oz military base, the morgue at Shura, and the headquarters for the families of the hostages. Patten personally met with released hostages and families of hostages, and the team met with eyewitnesses from the party and with first responders, including rescuers, paramedics, and IDF personnel."
According to her, the team will present its findings to the Secretary-General, with the aim of having them appear in a report that will be submitted to the Security Council. "The hope is that Hamas will then be put on the blacklist of parties involved in sexual violence and that this will lead to further measures, such as an investigation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague."
Halperin-Kaddari hasn’t watched the film made by the IDF spokesperson about the massacre. "I've seen enough - things I had to see so I could stand before various international organizations and say 'I saw it with my own eyes.' And it's not over - it's an ongoing journey and struggle. It's a Sisyphean task that must be maintained and not abandoned, which means gathering more evidence and testimonies."
I assume that this journey has also not been easy for you personally.
"It's very difficult, and I am aware of the psychological cost. My life changed after October 7; I still haven't returned to enjoying things like going to a movie or a concert. What really keeps me going are my grandchildren and physical activity - the gym and swimming. I know that self-care is necessary, and I'm in therapy, which is essential."