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War on Gaza: Israel's killing of women and children bodes ill for the world

It has been shocking to see the lack of official condemnation for Israel's slaughter of thousands of Palestinian civilians 
Women mourn during a funeral in Rafah, Gaza, on 19 December 2023 (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Having been a humanitarian worker for more than two decades, I have long felt confident in my understanding and analysis of international affairs. Today, I am no longer so sure, because some of my basic underlying assumptions have been shattered into millions of pieces over the last few months. 

The first was my firm belief that while wars inevitably get ugly and civilians are guaranteed to suffer the brunt of any conflict, there would always be a “red line” that could not be crossed. 

That line, in my naive reading of the world, was that the international community would not tolerate nor allow the large-scale, systematic and deliberate execution of civilian women, children and men. After all, 75 years ago, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women’s rights were recognised as human rights for the first time by consensus - a foundation upon which other international treaties have been built. 

During conflicts, women benefit from the same protections as all civilians, with the Geneva Conventions providing for treatment “without any adverse distinction founded on … sex”. I had always assumed that if world leaders knew the extent of the horrors inflicted on civilians, including women and children - if information reached them in real time - they would swiftly mobilise with force and outrage. I was wrong.

The sanctioned slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians in Gaza, of whom 70 percent are women and children, cannot be seen as anything but the codification of a trend that has been a long time coming: our official entry into a space and time that has no due consideration for the lives, dignity and humanity of women and children. Period.

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Had we paid attention over the years, we would have seen the writing on the wall. The international community has been presented with a number of tests in recent years, called to rise to the challenge of upholding women’s and children’s rights in conflict. It failed them miserably. 

When the Taliban regime in Afghanistan successfully managed to banish women from public life, crushing the dreams of hundreds of thousands of girls who could no longer pursue higher education, the world was enraged but eventually succumbed. 

In recent decades, further milestones marking tacit international acceptance of the desecration of women in times of conflict have been reached in Iraq, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Ukraine, to name just a few. Tactics have included rape, sexual slavery and attacks on infants and pregnant women, among others.

Abhorrent reality

Today, as Israel’s war on Gaza continues, we have seen a very concerning targeting of women and children, thousands of whom have been killed in air strikes. This strategy aims to break, subjugate and even destroy the population or group to which they belong. 

Within this abhorrent reality, we have heard the perpetrators justify their violence. Israel’s blatant incitement of hatred and violence against Palestinians, including women and children, has stood out in its degree of dehumanisation. Members of the Israeli government and society have made it clear that they consider women and children part of “the enemy” that should be destroyed.

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Disturbingly, there seems to be absolute impunity for crimes committed against civilians. Perhaps that should not come as a surprise. We have seen the consequences clearly in recent days in both Sudan and Palestine, where the international justice system has failed to hold perpetrators accountable. 

Make no mistake, what happens in Palestine will not remain confined to Palestine

The proceedings recently brought by South Africa at the International Court of Justice against Israel over its alleged violations of the Genocide Convention, and its express reference to the gendered impacts on women, offers an opportunity to expand our understanding of such crimes, particularly in the context of settler-colonialism, occupation and apartheid.

But make no mistake, what happens in Palestine will not remain confined to Palestine. Perpetrators of violence against women and children have taken note of the absolute impunity with which Israel has been able to carry out its crimes - day in and day out, in broad daylight, for all to see, using the most sophisticated weapons. 

If the world can watch in real time a full-blown genocide unfolding against Palestinian civilians, what hopes for attention and justice do women and children have in other parts of the world that do not even register on our screens or our collective conscience? Many of these victims will sadly fade into the background as faceless numbers. 

Continuums of violence

The complete disregard for women’s and children’s lives during times of war cannot be delinked from the violence they are increasingly facing in times of  “peace”. We often speak about continuums of violence, and in many countries, the rise of femicide, along with moves to control and exploit women, pose ongoing serious challenges.

Collectively, the way we treat women and children can contribute to their dehumanisation and to legitimising the onslaughts against them.

War on Gaza: To be a Palestinian child is a curse, not a blessing
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Another casualty of the war against Palestinians in Gaza over the past several months has been the authority of international law, robbing victims and human rights advocates of the necessary tools to do our work. If the entire world watches without taking action against the perpetrators - and even condemns those showing solidarity with the victims - what hopes can individual women have when they are targeted by exploitation or violence?

The credibility of the international human rights system has been undermined by the double standards of governments, particularly those that claim to prioritise gender equality, women’s rights, and the rights of children in conflict. In the case of Palestine, allegations of sexual violence levied against Hamas have been weaponised by some to undermine calls for accountability for Israel’s crimes against Palestinians in Gaza.

With regards to the violence inflicted on women and children in Gaza, the silence and selectivity of some national and international organisations has been both deafening and an eye-opener. They find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, because this time, the perpetrators are not the “usual suspects”, nor forces acting in the name of “regressive” religious, social or cultural norms. The “automatic” images they expected did not materialise: rather than showing up as embodiments of “toxic masculinity”, Palestinians in Gaza, including men and boys, emerged as considerate, tender and affectionate, supporting the weaker and most vulnerable. 

At the same time, it has been a ray of hope to see average civilians and many grassroots organisations - those who have been outraged by Israel’s horrific attacks against civilians, including women and children, in Gaza - protesting fiercely and continuously to stop the bloodshed and demand accountability. They instinctively understand the true ramifications of this war, which risks a wholesale weakening of global protections for civilians in times of conflict.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Reem Alsalem is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences. She is also an independent consultant on gender issues, the rights of refugees and migrants, transitional justice and humanitarian response.
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