Lina AbiRafeh
7 min readFeb 25, 2024
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I condemn your silence: Sexual violence against Palestinian women

Earlier this week, a collection of independent UN experts confirmed what we always knew to be true — raising serious concern about the credible and ongoing violence against Palestinian women at the hands of the Israeli military both in Gaza and in the West Bank. The title of the articleUN experts appalled by reported human rights violations against Palestinian women and girls — says it all.

Among a litany of other shocking human rights violations, at least two women were forcibly raped while many others were threatened with sexual violence. This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Palestinian women also have been forced to strip in front of male Israeli soldiers to be aggressively searched. Photos of these women were then posted online. Given that modesty is a huge part of many Palestinian women’s lives and beliefs, this sexual harassment becomes all the more violent.

And it’s not just women. Abdullah al-Zaghari, head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society, stated that detained Palestinian men have faced similar instances of sexual violence such as humiliating strip searches, attacks on their genitals, and attempted rape.

Ultimately, the experts have surmised that these acts are violations of international human rights and humanitarian law — to add to the already-enormous list of violations thus far.

Now before anyone gets all tangled up with the “failure to condemn” rhetoric, let me be very clear: I do not accept or condone sexual violence against any person, at any time, for any reason. And, I recognize that perpetrators are always responsible for their actions — whether they be Hamas or the Israeli Forces, or anyone else.

An Israeli activist group supporting survivors of sexual assault released a report outlining the sexual violence that occurred during or immediately after 7 October to Israeli civilians at the hands of Hamas insurgents. The story is the same — reports of forced rapes, humiliations, and other sadistic practices are made explicit.

Let me repeat: I do not accept or condone any of it. And — I believe survivors.

However, I also believe that the Israeli propaganda machine has been out in full swing these last five months. Yes, documented evidence is challenging to obtain in every context of conflict, but many have explored these allegations and claim that the evidence does not align. Instead, it is being used to justify and manufacture consent for the ongoing genocide.

I also believe in independent survivor-centered investigations for all cases of sexual violence. Israel is refusing to participate in independent investigations of these claims. And yet supporting women should also mean protecting them and seeking justice through these mechanisms. The failure to do so raises concerns.

I align completely with the recent Open Letter to the Israeli and US Governments on how they have weaponized the issue of rape. The letter argues that the issue of sexual violence has been wielded as a tool of war and a weapon of racism and colonialism by the Israeli government “to both legitimize — and divert attention from — their campaign of ethnic cleansing, to dehumanize Palestinians, and to vilify those who criticize their actions.”

The Open Letter goes on to say that Israel has been actively discrediting feminists of color, Arab feminists and Jewish anti-Zionist feminists in an attempt to “incite public fury and deflect attention from the genocide it is perpetrating.”

As a feminist, I do not accept this accusation.

I’ll say it a third time just in case: I can condemn sexual violence and also condemn genocide. I can condemn violence against women everywhere and also recognize the disproportionate impact on Palestinian women.

Sexual violence is — to me — the world’s worst crime. It is too often perpetrated with impunity. And it is rampant during warfare — as an acceptable tactic of war. I know this all too well — it used to be my job.

We’ve seen war played out on women’s bodies time and again from Bosnia to the DRC, from Haiti to Rwanda, from Iraq to Sudan. More recent examples include Tigray, Syria, Ukraine, Kashmir, and Myanmar to name but a few. I’ve written previously about the topic here. And just about every time I write. Or speak. Or do anything.

To be clear, conflict-related sexual violence includes things like rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, and many more horrendous forms. It can be perpetrated against anyone — but women and girls are disproportionately affected. This is rife in contexts of conflict because of the breakdown of law and order, economic insecurity, rising inequality, and of course increased militarization. Too many people pay the price — and too often in silence. These crimes are seldom reported because of fear or stigma, lack of trust in authorities, or because of the disintegration of safety and services. It is estimated that for every rape reported in conflict, 10–20 go undocumented. Personally, I think that underestimates the reality.

All that to say, it happens a lot. But that does not mean that it can be manipulated by those who are committing war crimes. This does not give a green light to the current genocidal massacre of Palestinians. No, nothing excuses this. Absolutely nothing.

Palestinian women have endured decades of denial of bodily autonomy and integrity as well as sexual violence — for the duration of the occupation. Sexual violence against Palestinian women by Israeli security forces is most common at checkpoints or during house raids. This includes all forms of sexual violence as well as public strip searches. Palestinian women also experience sexual violence while visiting their relatives in Israeli jails, when attending court hearings of their relatives, and during interrogations — by both male and female interrogators.

And it’s not just about sexual violence. We’re bearing witness to rampant obstetric violence as well, meaning harm against pregnant, birthing, or postpartum women. Five months into this madness and maternity medications are virtually nonexistent, miscarriages are common, forced starvation is underway, and the list goes on. The Palestinian Feminist Collective recently detailed the egregious reproductive genocide taking place in Gaza. In fact, they argue that “Zionist settler colonialism is predicated on the racialized logic of elimination, by controlling the reproduction and sexuality of Palestinian women.”

Even before this latest round of violence, Palestinian women lacked access to sexual and reproductive health services due to Israeli restrictions on their freedoms and movements. And Gaza in particular has been under Israeli control — and blockade — for decades. The deliberate destruction of an already feeble healthcare system is a crime.

Hospitals and health centers providing sexual and reproductive health and rights services in Gaza have been targeted in airstrikes. Refugee camps, schools, and churches have also not been spared. Any place deemed “safe” has been hit. Pregnant women in Gaza are denied the urgent care they need and are dying in childbirth as a result. What’s more, they suffer from poor sanitation conditions and the outbreak of disease. Or starvation, as a method of warfare. And lack of access to clean water.

Periods don’t stop in a crisis. There are no pads or other safe alternatives. Instead, there are dangerous period-delaying pills or pieces of tent fibers as pads. Contraception is practically zero, meaning that unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and urinary tract infections are all on the rise with no access to medical care.

And if that isn’t painful enough, there are many disgusting examples shared across social media showing Israeli soldiers dehumanizing Palestinians by rifling through, making fun of, and taking photos with Palestinian women’s underwear in their deserted and destroyed homes.

In short, Israeli violence continues to wreak havoc on the bodies and lives of Palestinian women in every imaginable form.

And that’s just the physical stuff. The sheer trauma and psychological toll will last for generations. It has already lasted 75 years.

Do we need to go on? What more do people need to see, to read, to hear? The evidence overwhelms.

As I’ve said before, Palestine is a litmus test of our feminist commitment to all women and girls. Everywhere. Without exception. So far it rings rather hollow.

Meanwhile, every day my feminism continues to be questioned precisely because I speak about Palestinian women. Ironic, when I question everyone else’s feminism for not doing so. The question of Palestine is the line in the sand for feminists and all so-called liberals in the West. What’s more, Western feminists are quick to condemn Hamas — or any violence perpetrated by Palestinians — without a word about the extreme violence perpetrated by Israel.

And even now, as more evidence of sexual violence against Palestinians emerges, Western feminists remain silent.

Your silence has been noted. And this is what I condemn.


Get involved!

Join GlobalDev4Palestine and incredible experts on February 29 for the webinar Unpacking the Realities of GBV through a Feminist Lens in Palestine. The event is free — but you might as well donate to good causes. The speakers will tell us where!

Check out the flyer below for more info, and register here.

While you’re in the mood for action, check out the GBV Call to Action and add your name to the GBV Petition.


Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights activist, author, speaker, aid worker with 3 decades of global experience - and lots to say! More on my website: