Hamas wanted to target women in its October 7 attack. Israel is fighting for international recognition of these acts. Why is this so difficult?

A woman finds herself in a container.

Shari Mendes in a refrigerated container at a military base near Tel Aviv that houses the bodies of murdered people Photo: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv/NYT/laif

SEDAN taz | When Shari Mendes arrived at the Shura military base southeast of Tel Aviv on October 8, a day after the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas attacked Israel, body bags were already piling up with those killed. As she describes it to him, there are more and more of them minute by minute. Refrigerated vehicles are requested to accommodate the immense number of deaths. “It was like a horror show,” she says.

Last week, Mendes traveled to Berlin with an Israeli delegation and women's rights activist and businesswoman Sheryl Sandberg to report on Hamas violence against women at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry. Mendes is an architect and belongs to a women's reserve unit that identifies soldiers who die in war situations and prepares them for burial.

After the massacre carried out by Hamas terrorists, his unit must care for the bodies of the murdered women. Mendes takes the women's blood-stained jewelry and cleans it to return it to their families. Sometimes he simply covers the women with a cloth and, he says, gives them back the respect that was taken from them by the violence they experienced. Make women subjects again. She calls what she experienced an incomprehensible situation.

In war, Mendes says, the dead come slowly. There is time to care for each individual. After October 7, the military system was initially overwhelmed. The helpers worked 24-hour shifts and slept in tents at the military base, not far from the bodies. The work could not have been done any other way. Mendes said this reminded him of New York after the Islamist attack of September 11, 2001.

The investigations will take years

Mendes talks about the horrors he saw: women being shot multiple times in the face. In the eyes, in the nose. Faces covered in blood, to such an extent that they were barely recognizable. Of women with burned limbs. Of women, almost always scantily clad, whose underwear was covered in blood. Women who had been shot in the chest, in the vagina. Women who had had their pelvis broken. Women who showed signs of the most brutal rapes and torture.

Since October 7, the Israeli police have obtained thousands of such pieces of evidence. He evaluated videos, mostly taken by Hamas terrorists themselves with body cameras, and posted them on the Internet. He has conducted forensic investigations, collected witness statements, interviewed survivors and released hostages, and interrogated detained Hamas terrorists. The investigation continues. Police repeatedly say they could last for years.

Four months after the massacre, a picture can now be drawn of what happened on October 7 and how these acts were intended. “Sexual violence was a systematically planned part of the attack,” said Mirit Ben Mayor, senior commissioner and head of communications for the Israeli police. She presented some of the preliminary results of her research in Berlin. Like Mendes, she talks about mutilations and rapes of women, which they found in more than 20 places in Israel. With barely recognizable bodies. Human remains, some of which could no longer be assigned. And she talks about Hamas terrorists who showed no remorse in their interrogations and who admitted that they had been sent to Israel to “contaminate” women and rape them.

Healing happens at your own pace

But although investigations so far have been able to gather countless evidence indicating that the violence of October 7 was also directed specifically against Israeli women and that it was intended to humiliate the State of Israel in this way, women's rights organizations have still we have not sufficiently condemned this specific violence: this is Israel's criticism. Only the United Nations and its women's rights organization UN Women did not recognize the acts for more than two months. It was only in the middle of last week that the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, traveled to Israel. 115 days after the massacre, she asked the victims and witnesses to stop remaining silent.

In cases of sexual violence, there is often an expectation that those affected will speak out, share their stories publicly and therefore provide evidence. But it's unclear if and when anyone will be able to talk about what they experienced after extreme trauma. Sometimes it can take months, even years, says Sharon Gal Van-Raalte about the taz. She is a psychologist and expert in extreme trauma and sexual abuse. Since the Hamas attack, she has been caring for the survivors of Kibbutz Kfar Aza. Even for Gal Van-Raalte, an experienced trauma specialist, the massacre is a unique and overwhelming experience. Those dealing with sexual trauma often do not see those affected immediately after the crime. While there is a protocol for how clients are treated in trauma therapy, psychologists like Gal Van-Raalte now have to improvise.

Public calls for those affected to witness the acts of violence they have suffered irritate them. “Survivors are far from being able to process trauma,” she says. Those affected do not have to convince anyone. But: “You have to heal. And they have to do it at their own pace.” The length of the healing process also depends on how safe people feel. The wavering condemnations of international organizations have an influence that should not be underestimated, explains Gal Van-Raalte: “Women who see that the world doubts that what happened to them ever happened feel deeply uneasy. Where will they find the strength to talk about their trauma?

Survivors are injured physically and mentally

Furthermore, focusing solely on trauma, on violence, falls short and does not do justice to reality. Because it is not just the trauma itself that survivors in Israel now have to face. “Their entire lives were destroyed,” says Gal Van-Raalte. People had to abandon their homes because they were destroyed. They were evacuated to hotels and there they are staying in a small space with many people who are strangers to them. They cannot continue with their jobs and have no economic income. It is unclear whether those affected will ever return to their kibbutzim and whether the communities will survive. “We experts have never experienced such a massive collective trauma as on October 7,” says Gal Van-Raalte.

The psychologist speaks of survivors who are physically but also mentally wounded, who feel betrayed, deeply insecure and in shock. Days after October 7, a Kfar Aza resident carried his rifle day and night, says Gal Van-Raalte. He couldn't leave it for fear that the terrorists would return at any moment. It took many conversations until he was convinced that he was safe and could put down the rifle.

Shari Mendes and Sharon Gal Van-Raalte highlight the resilience of the Israeli people. From a country that emerged as a response to the extreme trauma of the Shoah. With one caveat: “My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was resilient. She died at 94 years old. I always asked him: What is your secret? She replied: Hard work. “She never talked to us or her family about her trauma; she didn't want to be a burden on us,” says Gal Van-Raalte.

There is no promise that those affected themselves will be able to pass on the heinous atrocities of October 7th. But without international recognition of this violence, particularly against Israeli women, there will be little hope.