July 20th, 2024

Amid criticism, Canada asks Israel how it can help respond to Hamas sexual violence

By Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press on January 17, 2024.

Israeli soldiers inspect houses damaged by Hamas militants in Kibbutz Kfar Azza, Israel, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. A multipartisan group of influential women is calling on Canada to help Israel heal from sexual violence by Hamas, though it remains unclear what people in that country actually want from Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Ariel Schalit

OTTAWA – A multipartisan group of influential women is calling on Canada to help Israel heal from sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas, though it remains unclear what people in that country actually want from Ottawa.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tasked senior officials with sorting out how Canada can help Israeli officials investigate the role of sexual violence in October’s brutal Hamas attack on Israel and support those affected.

But those pushing for Canada to get involved say Ottawa’s response has been slow and harmful.

“Israeli women deserve more than a tweet,” said Ariella Kimmel, a former political aide who is helping co-ordinate with various politicians and Jewish groups.

“A feminist foreign policy should be focused on helping the victims and the witnesses get the support that they need, and to uncover and bring to light Hamas’s use of sexual violence as a means of terrorism.”

Officials in Israel say they have video evidence and witness testimony that Hamas raped and sexually brutalized women during the militant group’s attack.

In Israel, women’s organizations called on the international community to condemn sexual violence by Hamas for weeks before global women’s groups acknowledged the issue.

In November, the University of Alberta replaced the head of its sexual assault centre for endorsing an open letter that questioned the validity of sexual assault claims against Hamas.

Canada’s envoy for combating antisemitism, Deborah Lyons, would later chalk up that kind of skepticism to a double standard and a “refusal/indifference to believe Jewish women.”

The Associated Press reports that while police in Israel have said the allegations are credible, they have had difficulty investigating sexual violence. Many victims were also killed by their attackers, and officials prioritized identifying and burying remains rather than preserving evidence.

Israeli embassies have shown reporters videos of Hamas atrocities that compile hundreds of clips from social media, security cameras and posts by Hamas fighters. Footage viewed by Canadian reporters did not show acts of sexual violence.

A doctor who treated some of the 110 hostages released in November during a pause in fighting told AP that at least 10 men and women among them were sexually assaulted or abused.

And some freed hostages testified at a parliamentary committee in Israel that they heard stories of sexual assault from fellow captives.

Last month, former Ontario Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne, former federal Conservative minister Lisa Raitt and former Ontario NDP legislator Cheri DiNovo jointly called for Canada to commit resources help Israel.

The trio asked Ottawa to earmark $1 million to support victims and send RCMP officials to help with investigations. Wynne said both requests followed Canada’s support for Ukrainians facing sexual violence by Russian troops.

A week later, another group of prominent women echoed those calls, including former B.C. Liberal premier Christy Clark, former federal Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister Liz Sandals, as well as Laureen Harper, the wife of former prime minister Stephen Harper and an animal welfare and anti-bullying advocate.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded in writing five days before Christmas, tasking Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc to “look at options to provide RCMP, financial or technical support to Israel as it investigates the sexual violence committed on Oct. 7 and to support victims and survivors of sexual violence.”

The update from Trudeau came as federal Liberals were facing sustained criticism for what critics saw as a slow response.

Ottawa’s first major acknowledgment of the issue, a couple of weeks before he penned the letter, had raised eyebrows.

“Sexual (and) gender-based violence impact both Israeli (and) Palestinian women and girls, and also men and boys, in distinct ways. Canada condemns all use of sexual and gender-based violence as a tactic of war,” read a Dec. 7 social media post from Canada’s embassy in Tel Aviv and its mission in Ramallah.

Conservatives were quick to argue that Canada was suggesting Palestinians have been victims of sexual violence by Israeli forces in the war against Hamas.

Canada’s embassy in Israel added that “Israeli women and girls have been profoundly impacted by the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. Accounts of brutal sexual violence during the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks are deeply concerning and must be investigated.”

But Kimmel accused Ottawa of playing down the actions of Hamas in what she called a “muddled” response.

Israeli women need to see unequivocal condemnation, she argued, noting it is possible to be critical of Israel’s government while also calling out reprehensible sexual violence against civilians.

“As women, watching those around us exclude victims because they’re Israeli continues to be incredibly painful.” she said.

“It’s very easy for people to forget what happened, and it’s incredibly important that we don’t.”

In Israel, international law professor Cochav Elkayam-Levy is leading what’s called the Civil Commission on Oct. 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children, which is documenting incidents of sexual violence.

The commission aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of gender-based violence committed by Hamas, instead of focusing on forensic documentation of individual cases. It has gathered witness accounts of sexual assault against Israeli women and photographic evidence of men being sexually tortured.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Canada’s ambassador to Israel, Lisa Stadelbauer, had an hour-long discussion with Elkayam-Levy on Dec. 6, and that she had asked the researcher how Canada could help.

“I don’t know yet what I’m asking for,” the newspaper quoted Elkayam-Levy as saying. “We’re focusing now on creating partnerships and getting as many international and state bodies to recognize the horrors.”

The Liberals broke their silence on sexual violence by Hamas the next day.

Elkayam-Levy is expected to table an initial report from the commission as soon as Thursday, and Kimmel said there are talks about possibly having the researcher visit Canada.

Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Iddo Moed, said in an interview last month that his country would appreciate any help Ottawa can offer.

“Anything that has to do with humanitarian assistance will be most welcome,” he said. “If Canada has any specialization in mitigating sexual violence, especially against women, of course, it would be most welcome, definitely.”

Global Affairs Canada would not make Stadelbauer nor Lyons available for an interview.

Instead, the department wrote in a lengthy statement that the world needs to do more to help Israeli victims of sexual violence by Hamas, and it noted a United Nations official is on the ground to amplify the voices of survivors.

“Believing Israeli women and girls is a necessary step towards justice,” wrote spokesman Pierre Cuguen.

“The international community can and must do better to respond to reports of sexual and gender-based violence. This includes the United Nations and all of its member states.”

Cuguen wrote that Canada is in “regular contact” with Israeli officials on how to respond, saying this must involve the “rights, needs and safety” of the victims while giving women a prominent role.

“We are currently in discussions with our Israeli counterparts to explore ways in which Canada can assist.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2024.

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