How colonizers weaponize rape: reflections from the Palestinian case

Tamam Mohsen

Mondoweiss  /  August 8, 2022

Israel’s use of rape as an instrument of war is nothing new. What’s unique is that it has been at war with the Palestinians for 74 years.

The issue of the weaponization of sexual violence and rape in wartime has now returned center-stage following horrific reports of Russian troops raping Ukrainian women throughout the course of the recent Russian invasion.

Ukraine’s ombudswoman for human rights, Lyudmyla Denisova, told the BBC that in one case, “about 25 girls and women aged 14 to 24 were systematically raped during the occupation in the basement of one house in Bucha. Nine of them are pregnant.”

Yet this morbid tactic is nothing new in the history of the militarization of sexual violence. It has been 30 years since the conclusion of the Lebanese civil war, yet the brutalities and atrocities visited upon women’s bodies are only now coming to light, as per a report issued by Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) on June 9. And even further back, the systematic use of rape by Zionist militias throughout the course of the 1948 war as an instrument of ethnic cleansing and dispossession led to the displacement of around 750,000 indigenous Palestinians to make room for the nascent Jewish state.

Palestinian women, who are entitled to “birth the nation,” to borrow from Rhoda Kanaaneh, have been particularly targeted by this eliminationist Zionist practice, as a way of disposing of an undesirable population. 

This very same impetus is today disturbingly echoed in Russian soldiers’ rape of Ukrainian women. According of Denisova’s testimony to the BBC: “Russian soldiers told them [the rape survivors] they would rape them to the point where they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man, to prevent them from having Ukrainian children.”  

Rape as war tactic

The rape of women (and men) in wartime continues to rise at an alarming rate. Armed conflicts are more likely to exacerbate the occurrence of sexual violence in different forms and in varying degrees of severity.

During conflicts, women are raped in their homes, at their work, along roadsides, in fields, at checkpoints, and as they flee violence. Women’s bodies become a battlefield where their sexuality is militarized to achieve the goals of war.

“…rape is neither incidental nor private. It routinely serves a strategic function in war and acts as an integral tool for achieving particular military objectives.”

Dorothy Thomas and Regan E. Ralph

 Still, the documentation of wartime rape is notoriously difficult, due to the reluctance of the survivors to speak up, fearing retaliation, social stigmatization, or rejection by their communities. This is to say nothing of when they are immediately silenced when they are murdered at the scene. The absence of accountability also ensures that the perpetrators are not prosecuted.

Unfortunately, wartime rape has for a long time been trivialized and widely portrayed as an unavoidable consequence of armed conflicts. Dorothy Thomas and Regan E. Ralph have instead argued that rape is not an accidental or isolated phenomenon during conflict, but is rather used as a purposive form of weaponry alongside guns, tanks, and bombs to achieve the objectives of war. 

“Rape has been downplayed as an unfortunate but inevitable side effect of sending men to war,” they write: 

“In fact, rape is neither incidental nor private. It routinely serves a strategic function in war and acts as an integral tool for achieving particular military objectives.”

Rape as a tool of ethnic cleansing and colonization

Undoubtedly, sexual violence, and primarily rape, intimately correlates with violence in armed conflict; however, it cannot be comprehended as an independent trajectory from broader systems of power such as racism and colonialism. Indeed, feminism dominated by white women defines rape merely as a tool of patriarchal domination, and glosses over the intersections of violence against women with gender, race, and colonization. This approach has been criticized heavily by many feminist women of color — particularly critical race theorists — for falling short of understanding sexual and gender-based violence against women who experience racialized and settler-colonial oppression, such as indigenous women.

In the case of Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine, the goal of acquiring land led to the use of brutal tactics aimed at the dispossession and elimination of the indigenous population. Colonizers embraced sexual terrorization as an instrument for achieving this strategy.

Rape, though still under-documented, played a role in the ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians in 1948 and after. Many families fled their homes, in part due to their concerns over  their women being raped by Zionist forces. Indeed, it can be said that the conquest of land has gone hand in hand with sexual violence in the history of the Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine. 

Use of sexual violence against activists

Colonial forces have also employed rape to suppress women’s political mobilization — as a way of quelling their capacity to resist colonial oppression, further disempowering the whole population. 

Female Palestinian prisoners have been subjected to the well-documented interrogation techniques of the Israeli Shin Bet — including rape — which exploit prevailing gender stereotypes within Palestinian society, such as “family honor” and “virginity,” in order to terrorize women and force them into confessing under torture. Sexuality is also employed by Israeli interrogators as a tool of blackmailing Palestinian women into becoming collaborators. 

Though it is difficult to provide accurate statistics on rape against female Palestinian prisoners, due to the sensitivity of the issue of sexual assault for Palestinian women and their families, there are several prominent detailed accounts from prominent Palestinian women, among them freed prisoners who have documented the deliberate use of rape and sexual torture against them. 

The freed Palestinian prisoner, Rasmea Odeh, publicly spoke in an American court about how she was raped by Israeli intelligence interrogators. Odeh, who was arrested in 1969 at the age of 19, reported that during her interrogation, she was beaten with wooden sticks and metal bars, and was left naked in a blatant violation of her sexuality.

Odeh was sexually tortured with electric shocks. Wires were attached to her genitals, breasts, abdomen, arms, and legs, and in that disoriented state, she was raped with a stick while her father was forced to watch. 

The testimony of another female Palestinian prisoner appears in a book chapter by Tamar Mayer: “They [Israeli interrogators] beat me with a stick…on my stomach…[T]hen one day, they told me to take my clothes off […] I was shaking. A dark big ugly man came in with a stick and I knew he was going to rape me with it […] all eight interrogators came in, to fondle me, laugh at me, touch my breasts. I was so ashamed.” 

“They tried to rape me with a stick, and really they did. I reached the point of death, and they succeeded. I fell unconscious.”

Aisha Odeh

The testimony of another freed Palestinian prisoner, Aisha Odeh (who was in fact a comrade of Rasmea Odeh), recounts the brutal sexual violence to which she was subjected while she was imprisoned. 

Like Rasmea, Aisha was also arrested in 1969 and sentenced to two life terms. In an interview with British journalist Arthur Neslen, published in 2011 in his book In Your Eyes a Sandstorm, she said: “they tried to rape us [her and Rasmea Odeh] in a very bad situation. They tried to rape me with a stick, and really they did. I reached the point of death, and they succeeded. I fell unconscious.”

Aisha details the events of her imprisonment and rape in her Arabic-language memoir, Dreams of Freedom, recounting the sexual insults and harassment visited upon her by the interrogators – “You bitch. Who did you sleep with? How many men have you slept with?” – as well as the details of her rape: “the interrogator [whom she called Azrael, or the ‘Angel of Death’] ordered me to remove my clothes. I refused, and then the other soldiers forcibly removed them. I was left completely naked, with my hand tied behind my back. They threw me to the floor…and Azrael tried to penetrate me with a stick. I resisted and resisted…and then I blacked out.”

Colonial imagination and the rapable ‘Other’

The rape of Palestinian women also stems from an Orientalist colonial imagination that marks women as rapable “others,” an act of dehumanization which does not regard the rape of these “oriental subjects” to constitute as a crime that carries any moral repercussions.  

A similar mentality was mirrored in a religious ruling by a prominent Israeli rabbi, who permitted the rape of “enemy women” during wartime. The rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, also approved rape by the military in 2002, in which he claimed that biblical law authorized rape under certain circumstances.

In a particularly inhumane manifestation of this depraved ideology, a leading Israeli professor, Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University, explicitly called for the rape of Palestinian women to deter the Palestinian resistance during the unrest of the summer of 2014. Kedar was speaking to an Israeli radio program following the killing of three Israeli settlers who had gone missing in the occupied West Bank: “The only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the [Israeli] children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped […] this is the culture of the Middle East,” he said.

Later, in 2016, Rabbi Colonel Eyal Qarim of the Israeli Military Rabbinate also echoed the same notion, making allowances for the rape of Palestinian women by Jewish Israeli soldiers “out of understanding for the hardship endured by the warriors.”

These racist Zionist assumptions frame “Arab culture” as backwards, misogynist, and rooted in the notions of family honor, hence rendering women as targets for deterrence, and as a means of crushing the indigenous will to resist. And more importantly, it makes the sexualized indigenous native into a sub-human and rapable “other” that can be freely violated. 

The prevailing notion that rape is simply unavoidable collateral damage is not just epistemologically problematic, but constitutes a dual atrocity against the survivors, who suffered severe physical and psychological trauma, and are then faced with social stigmatization and rejection from their communities.

In the case of Palestine, an understanding of rape during the Nakba as a tool of settler-colonialism will help us cement a new conception of sexual and gender-based violence that defies the dominant reductionist discourse regarding rape as a regrettable yet inevitable consequence of war. More pressing still, this reminds us that Palestinian women’s bodies are being subjected to cruel and sexualized forms of torture to this day. Fighting these atrocities against Palestinian prisoners cannot come about by ending those specific violations, but by ending their imprisonment altogether.

Tamam Mohsen is a Palestinian journalist