"No atrocity ever justifies another atrocity"

Many women were among the victims of the Hamas October 7 terror attacks
There were many women among the victims of the Hamas terror attacks (image: Ariel Schalit/AP Photo/picture alliance)

In early December, it was made public that Hamas fighters had systematically used sexual violence on 7 October. For international law expert Heidi Matthews, the offences undoubtedly require rigorous investigation. At the same time, however, the accusations are also being used as justification for Israel's disproportionate response in Gaza

Interview by Hannah El-Hitami

In early December 2023, more and more reports began to emerge about systematic sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October. At the time, you posted a tweet: "Is wartime sexual violence a horrific crime? YES, with no mistake", you wrote, "But sex exceptionalism is also traditionally used to whip up support for entire military campaigns". What do you mean by "sex exceptionalism"?

Heidi Matthews: "Sex exceptionalism" is the idea that when we add sex to the equation the violence is inherently worse and inherently deserving of harsher treatment. This is questioned by academics who are critical of what we call carceral feminism…

…a term that criticises feminists who believe in the penal authority of the state and advocate for enhancing prison sentences instead of working on structural injustice…

Matthews: Critical feminist scholars and queer theorists will be taking a very sceptical look at that. We know that punitive responses to sexual violence don't work in general and they certainly will not work in the context of wartime sexual violence either.

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Aimed at a Western audience

What prompted you to post about "sex exceptionalism" within the context of the war in Gaza?

Matthews: The tweet was a reaction to what I saw emerging as a concerted political campaign supported by a series of liberal feminists in the West around amplifying claims of sexual violence committed by Hamas or other militant groups on 7 October in order to justify the continuation and intensification of the war in Gaza

That was about two months ago and we have seen that continuation. There is no end in sight and the humanitarian crisis has intensified dramatically, as well as the number of dead and injured in Gaza.

Why were these allegations made at the beginning of December?

Matthews: In the early days after 7 October, there were claims of sexual violence being made, they were just not as amplified as two months later. The big campaign started in early December, which was when global public opinion really started to shift regarding the war in Gaza.

Significantly more people and states began calling for a ceasefire. Several states changed their voting behaviour at the UN General Assembly. Although UN resolutions are not binding resolutions, this did signal a shift in public opinion globally. So the sexual violence allegations were made in a systematic way at a time when Israel needed them politically.

Colonial mode: barbarism versus civilization

How do you feel these allegations were used in the conflict?

Matthews: They work within an age-old, colonial mode of exercising power in the world: the register of barbarism vs. civilization. Making these allegations in the way they were made, which is quite sensational, aims to provoke outrage and shock in the reader. 

It makes it easier for the Israeli government and their spokespeople to engage in dehumanising rhetoric about Hamas and Palestinians in general. What does it mean to be a barbarian? It means to engage in unrestrained senseless violence. 

And how do we show that people are barbarians? We make them out to be these sexually insatiable Arab males. The idea is that the only people who engage in sexual violence are not in fact humans, but "human animals" – that we are not dealing with a normal threat, but a threat that goes beyond any behaviour that a legitimate political actor would engage in.

At the beginning of December, there were protests outside the UN headquarters in New York against the world organisation's silence
In early December 2023, there were protests outside the UN headquarters in New York. The demonstrators accused the UN of silence in the face of the violence perpetrated against women during the Hamas massacre in Israel on 7 October. UN representatives pointed out that they wanted to complete the investigation first (image: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli President Isaac Herzog called Hamas a "rape machine" while condemning the South African genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy even spoke of a "rape regime" and accused Hamas of raping little girls

Matthews: There are countless official statements like that. Primarily, this material is designed for Western audiences and Western allies to encourage them to take a certain position on Israel. No-one in the West, the self-proclaimed seat of civilization, wants to be seen supporting not just terrorism but rape.

In the narrative of "sexual exceptionalism", sexual assaults are to be judged as particularly bad. And then we see how Israel's government spokesman Eylon Levy turns specific cases of sexual violence on 7 October into the general claim that "Hamas is a rape regime". 

What does that even mean? It creates this vivid imagery in your mind of an ultra-powerful governmental force whose whole purpose is to conduct systematic rapes. We don't have any evidence to that effect at all. 

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Nothing justifies a war that violates international law

Would it change anything if we could judge the extent of Hamas violence now?

Matthews: Legally it does not make a difference. That is what South Africa pointed out at the ICJ: no atrocity ever justifies another atrocity. No matter what happened on 7 October, and clearly a lot of atrocities did happen, it doesn't justify a vengeance-based response. 

Nothing that Hamas could have done would justify conducting the war in a way that violates international humanitarian law, in other words, that is indiscriminately targeting civilians. We are seeing a response that Israel says is based in self-defence. But it is wholly disproportionate and rooted in vengeance, which is illegal and morally wrong. 

Can you give an example of how "sex exceptionalism" has been used in past conflicts?

Matthews: Any time you talk about sexual violence or even just about sex and war together it is going to be very sensational, it is going to grab public attention. I wrote a piece a while ago about the way in which Germany started re-telling stories about mass sexual violence on the Eastern Front, as the Russians were coming towards Berlin. About ten years ago it became a really hot topic in discussion.

I was curious about the claims that feminists were making: that sexual violence had been silenced or ignored for 70 years, and that we needed to pay attention to it for political purposes today. In my piece, I make the claim that this heightened attention to historical rapes was taken up – not exclusively – but very prominently in very right-wing political circles in Germany.

At the time, the topic was touted by right-wing politicians to argue that the expulsion of ethnic Germans from East Prussia was possibly a forgotten war crime or even the most damaging aspect of the war for Germans. 

Another example you mention in a recent article are the widely circulated claims in 2011 that Viagra had been distributed to Muammar Gaddafi's soldiers to encourage mass rape. Though later debunked, they provided essential context within which Security Council support for military intervention was generated in 2011. Do you see a pattern behind these examples?

Matthews: Sex exceptionalism is not unique to a particular political group. It is easily accepted as common sense, no matter what political position you find yourself in. But there is a really interesting way in which claims about the depravity of sexual violence as something unique in war get played out to support quite conservative, often extreme right political projects. That is what is happening today in Gaza. 

But what is the alternative? Isn't it important to document sexual violence in conflict, just as it is important to document other war crimes and crimes against humanity?

Matthews: There is a difference between naming something as sexual violence, investigating it, providing services to victims and survivors and meting out appropriate punishment – and using that work for militaristic purposes. The second part is what I find problematic. 

Sexual violence is an international crime and any sexual violence that happened on and since 7 October needs to be dealt with. I have always said that and continue to say that. Yet, my attention is towards the politics of the situation and they are such that these allegations are being used to justify genocide.

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Addressing sexual violence

What would be a good way of addressing sexual violence in conflict without using it to "whip up support for military campaigns", as you wrote in your tweet?

By states participating in the rules-based international legal order. By states not making themselves pariahs, but actually engaging in the exercise of investigating, prosecuting and punishing international crimes. 

Israel says that the UN and other international organisations have been silent, have done nothing, are not believing Israeli women. At the same time it is refusing to cooperate with the international investigative schemes that are set up to deal with these crimes. 

We have a massive proliferation of international criminal tribunals, which started in large part because of allegations of rape and sexual violence in the wars in Yugoslavia in the 90s. 

There is a lot of expertise that has developed since then around the investigation and prosecution of those crimes – and maybe more importantly, on how to provide material support for these victims. One of the criticisms inside of Israel has been that there is a lack of resources for the victims of 7 October. The primary focus has not been on assisting the victims and their families in some kind of meaningful recovery, but instead on continuing the war effort.

Interview conducted by Hannah El-Hitami

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Heidi Matthews is professor of International Law at Osgoode Hall Law School in Canada.