Women’s Rights

The Hushed Ordeal of Palestinian Women

On March 4, the UN released a report on the rapes and sexual aggression on Israeli women perpetrated on October 7. While this text encountered a vast echo in the media, another UN report was not so fortunate. It dealt with the treatment of Palestinian women, in particular the rapes and sexual aggression which they have endured since the beginning of the war on Gaza.

Women looking out from the windows of a building adjacent to an area that was hit by Israeli shelling in Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip, on 7 February 2024
Said Khatib/AFP

Eight UN experts,1 all women, raised the alarm on 19 February. Expressing their ‘deepest concern’ over the information obtained from ‘various sources’. They denounced extrajudicial executions, rapes, sexual aggression, cold-blooded beatings, and humiliations perpetrated on Palestinian women in both Gaza and the West Bank. They report ‘credible allegations of flagrant violations of human rights’ of which Palestinian women and girls ‘have been and continue to be the victims’.2 According to the testimony, information, and images that they were able to cross-check, ‘women and girls have reportedly been arbitrarily executed in Gaza. “Women are often executed together with family members, including their children.” “We are shocked by reports of the deliberate targeting and extrajudicial killing of Palestinian women and children in places where they sought refuge or while fleeing”3 sometimes when they were holding pieces of white cloth in full view as a sign of peace. A video broadcast by Middle East Eye and which has been widely viewed on the Internet shows, among other things, a Palestinian grandmother shot down by Israeli forces in the centre of Gaza City on 12 November, while she and others are attempting to flee the area. At the moment of her execution this woman, whose name is Hala Khreis, was holding by the hand her grandson who was holding a white flag.

According to these same UN experts, hundreds of women have been arbitrarily detained since 7 October. These include human rights defenders, journalists, and humanitarian workers. All in all, “204 women and girls in Gaza, 147 women and children in the West Bank” are currently detained by Israel, according to Reem Alsalem, UN special rapporteur on violence to women and girls. She tells of women “literally kidnapped” from their homes and living in “atrocious” circumstances of detention. Several of them have been subjected to “inhuman and degrading treatments, denied menstruation pads, food and medicaments,” the UN press release goes on to specify. Further testimony tells of women detainees in Gaza kept in a cage in the rain and cold without food.

Rapes and sexual aggression

Next comes the sexual violence. “We are particularly distressed by reports that Palestinian women and girls in detention have also been subjected to multiple forms of sexual assault, such as being stripped naked and searched by male Israeli army officers. At least two female Palestine detainees were raped, and others threatened with rape and sexual violence,’ the experts report. These Palestinian women ‘were severely beaten, humiliated, denied medical assistance, striped naked and photographed in degrading positions. The photos were then shared among the soldiers,’ according to Reem Alsalem. ‘There are disturbing reports of at least one female infant forcibly transferred by the Israeli army into Israel, and of children being separated from their parents, whose whereabouts remain unknown.’ The press release accuses.

All these presumed acts having been perpetrated by ‘the Israeli army or its affiliated forces’ (police, prison staff, etc.). The group of experts call for an independent, impartial, prompt, thorough and effective investigation into these allegations and for Israel to cooperate with such investigations. ‘Taken together, these alleged acts may constitute grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, and amount to serious crimes under international criminal law that could be prosecuted under the Rome Statute,’ they warn. ‘There must be an immediate investigation into these crimes, the perpetrators must be held accountable, and the victims and their families have the right to reparations and complete justice for all.’

In an interview given to UNNews4, Reem Asalem deplores the contempt with which Israeli authorities have greeted these revelations:

‘We have received no reply, which is unfortunately standard behaviour from the Israeli government who will not deal constructively with the special procedures or independent experts.’

She went on to say that ‘the arbitrary detention of Palestinian women and girls is nothing new in Gaza or the West Bank.’

These allegations have been firmly rejected by the Israeli UN mission, claiming that no complaints have been received by Israeli authorities and denigrating on X’ a group of so-called UN experts. ‘Clearly, the co-signatories are not motivated by the truth but by their hatred of Israel and its people’.

And yet a 41-page report by the Israeli NGO Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI), entitled’ Systematic Violations of Human Rights, The incarceration conditions of Palestinians in Israel since October 7’ bears out the UN accusations. It contains many eyewitness reports describing the ‘degrading treatments and serious abuse’ including non-isolated cases of sexual harassment and aggression, violence, torture and humiliation. According to PHRI, the number of Palestinians detained by the Israeli penitentiary system has risen from 5,500 before October 7 to 9,000 in January 2024, including dozens of minors and women. Nearly one third of these detainees are held in administrative detention with no indictment or trial: in short, they are hostages. The NGO report confirms the fact that the Israeli army has arrested hundreds of Gaza inhabitants without providing any information, even four months later, as to their well-being, place of detention and conditions of incarceration.

Kissing the Israeli flag

This Israeli NGO’s report contains testimony from Palestinians telling how guards belonging to the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) forced them to kiss the Israeli flag and how those who refused were violently beaten. Such was the fate of Nabila, whose account was broadcast on Al Jazeera. She spent 47 days in arbitrary detention and described her experience as ‘horrifying’. She was kidnapped on December 24 from an UNWRA school in Gaza City well she had found refuge. The women were taken to a mosque where they were body-searched repeatedly and questioned with guns pointing at them, so violently that she said she thought they were going to be executed. After that, they were detained in the cold in conditions tantamount to torture.

‘We were freezing, our hands and feet were bound, and we had to stay on our knees (…) The Israeli soldiers shouted at us and hit us whenever we looked up or spoke a word.’

Nabila was then taken to the North of Israel, to Damon’s prison, along with some hundred other Palestinian women, some from the West Bank. She was beaten several rimes and when she reached the prison, her face was covered with bruises. Once inside the detention centre, things didn’t improve for the hostages. During the medical examination, Nabila was ordered to kiss the Israeli flag. ‘When I refused, a soldier grabbed my hair and knocked my head against the wall,’ she relates.

The Israeli ONG tells how the lawyers lodged complaints of violence before the military courts. The judges could see the signs of abuse on the bodies of the detainees but ‘aside from taking note of these preoccupations and informing the IPS, the judges failed to order any measures to prevent violence and protect the rights of detainees,’ as the Israeli ONG specifies. Yet ‘poignant evidence of violence and abuse equivalent to torture were brought to the attention of the Supreme Court by the PHRI and others […] However, it did not provoke any substantial reaction from the Court’ the organisation further regrets. One eyewitness account reported by PHRI tells of sexual aggression committed on October 15 when the special forces entered the cells of Kizi’ot prison (south-west of Beersheba), wrecked everything, insulting detainees with explicit sexual slurs such as ‘you’re all whores’, ‘we’re going to fuck all of you’, ‘we’re going to fuck your sisters and your wives’ ‘we’re going to piss on your mattresses’. ‘The guards lined the naked prisoners up pressed against each other and stuck an aluminium inspection device between their buttocks. In one case, a guard slipped a card between the person’s buttocks. This took place in front of the other detainees and the other guards whom all expressed their joy’, it was reported. It is not, however, specified whether this account concerns men or women.

Women’s underwear and colonial sub-conscious

Israeli soldiers distinguished themselves on the social networks by posing with objects and underwear belonging to Palestinian women whose houses they had ransacked. Images which went around the world and aroused widespread indignation. Violation of privacy, exposure of bodies, rape of colonised women: sexual domination has always been an important weapon characteristic of colonial empires. ‘To take control of a territory, political and military violence did not eat enough. It is also necessary to appropriate the bodies, especially women’s bodies, colonisation being a male undertaking’, historian Christelle Taraud explains. She is co-editor of a collective volume Sexualités, identités & corps colonisés (CNRS editions, 2019).

Palestinian women are paying a terrible price for the ongoing genocide in Gaza. According to UN estimates, 9,000 women have been killed since October 7, 2023. Those who survive have lost their children, their husbands, and dozens of relatives. Nor must we forget the plight of pregnant women who were more than 50,000 when the hostilities began and who have been giving birth without anaesthetics and, most often, without medical assistance. Newborn babies die of hypothermia after only a few days. Undernourished mothers have difficulty breast-feeding and baby milk is a rare commodity. The statistics change from day to day but on 5 March, at least 16 children and babies died of malnutrition and dehydration5 in Gaza on account of Israel’s total siege and blockage of humanitarian aid.

1The group of eight experts is composed of Reem Alsalem,; UN special rapporteur on violence to women and girls, its causes and consequences, Francesca Albanese, special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, chairperson of the UN Task Force on the Discrimination against women and girls and four of its members: Claudia Flores, Ivana Krstic, Hanna Lu and Laura Nyirinkindi. Special procedure experts work on a voluntary basis. They are not part of UN personnel and receive no wages. They are independent of any government or organisation and carry out this work as individuals.

2« UN experts appalled by reported human rights violations against Palestinian women and girls », United Nations, 19 February 2024.


4‘Rights experts alarmed by reported violations against Palestinian women and girls », March 1, 2024.

5“Malnutrition” is especially high“in Northern Gaza, according to WHO” United Nations, March 5, 2024.