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Sheryl Sandberg on Hamas attack: Rape should never be used as an act of war

By Catherine Thorbecke, CNN

(CNN) — Sheryl Sandberg, a longtime advocate for women and girls’ rights, spoke out against Hamas’ use of sexual violence as a war tactic, saying at the United Nations Monday: “Rape should never be used as an act of war.”

“Silence is complicity,” Sandberg said. “And in the face of terror, we cannot be quiet. That is why we are all here today to speak about unspeakable acts.”

Sandberg, the former chief operating officer of Facebook (now Meta) and founder of the nonprofit group Lean In, spoke at an assembly hosted by Israel at the United Nation’s headquarters in New York on Monday

“For over a decade, I’ve been urging women to lean in,” Sandberg said. “Now I call on everyone to speak out. And if the world isn’t listening to us, we’re just gonna have to speak louder.”

“Anyone who has a mother, a sister, a daughter a wife, or a friend should join us to unite against rape,” she added. “This goes beyond politics. If we can’t agree that rape is wrong, then we have accepted the unacceptable. Then the question will be not what is happening in the Middle East but what is happening to our humanity?”

Sandberg introduced Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, who took the stage to blast the silence from women’s advocacy groups on the issue. “When I saw the list of women’s rights organizations who have said nothing, I nearly choked,” Gillibrand said. “Where is the solidarity for women in this country and in this world to stand up for our mothers, our sisters and our daughters?”

Senator Gillibrand called on the UN to denounce Hamas as a terrorist organization. The rest of her statement was made inaudible over the cheers and standing ovation from the room.

Gillibrand slammed the “horrific acts” committed by Hamas on October 7 as “truly indescribable.” Several speakers reiterated that some human rights groups such as UN Women were too slow to condemn the rape and sexual violence.

“We unequivocally condemn the brutal attacks by Hamas on Israel on 7 October,” the group said in a statement on Dec. 1. “We are alarmed by the numerous accounts of gender-based atrocities and sexual violence during those attacks. This is why we have called for all accounts of gender-based violence to be duly investigated and prosecuted, with the rights of the victim at the core.”

‘Systemic’ sexual violence

In the wake of Hamas’ October 7 attacks, Israeli police are interrogating suspects and compiling evidence, including video, forensics and witness testimony, to investigate accusations of rape during the attacks. Witnesses to the aftermath of the attacks say women and girls were sexually assaulted, tortured and killed.

Hamas on Monday doubled down on its denial that its militants committed rape during the Oct. 7 attacks in a statement on Telegram. “We strongly reject and denounce the coordination of some Western media outlets with the Zionist misleading campaigns that promote unfounded lies and allegations aimed at demonizing the Palestinian resistance, the latest of which is the allegation that resistance members committed ‘sexual violence’ during the Battle of Al-Aqsa Flood on October 7th,” Hamas’ political office said in a statement on Telegram.

Organizers of Monday’s meeting refuted that by showing mounting evidence that rape occurred during the attacks on Oct. 7, including graphic video footage of bodies, videos of Hamas fighters admitting under interrogation that rape occurred and testimony from Israeli police officers and witnesses to the attack and its aftermath. Speakers who prepared bodies for burial described evidence that militants gang raped some victims, purposely shot or mutilated victims in genital regions and murdered victims with cruelty such as multiple gunshots wounds.

“A survivor from the Nova rave party testified, ‘Everything was an apocalypse of corpses, girls without any clothes on, without tops, without underwear, people cut in half, butchered, some where beheaded,” said Yael Reichert, a chief superintendent with the Israeli national police who is helping lead the investigation into sexual offenses committed on Oct. 7.

Moreover, there seemed to be “a systematic genital mutilation of a group of victims,” said Shari G. Mendes, who worked in an Israeli military reserve unit to prepare deceased female soldiers for burial after the attacks. She said she witnessed the body of one young woman arrived “with no legs, they had been cut off.”

Mendes said she “saw several severed heads. One with a large kitchen knife still embedded in the neck.”

Simchat Greyman, a volunteer for ZAKA Search and Rescue, which recovered bodies from Southern Israel near Gaza after October 7th, testified to seeing a murdered woman with “nails and different objects in her female organs.” He also recalled a body they found that was so brutalized they “couldn’t even identify if it was a man or women.”

World leaders speaking up

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also shared a video message at the event, calling on the global community to respond to “weaponized sexual violence where ever it happens with absolute condemnation.”

“There can be no justifications and no excuses,” Clinton said. “Rape as a weapon of war is a crime against humanity.”

“Organizations, governments and individuals who are committed to a better future for women and girls have a responsibility to condemn all violence against women,” Clinton implored. “It is outrageous that some who claim to stand for justice are closing their eyes and in their hearts to the victims of Hamas.”

State Department spokesman Matt Miller said Monday that one of the reasons Hamas does not want to release women being held hostage seems to be because “they don’t want those women to be able to talk about what happened to them during their time in custody.”

Miller added later, however, that he could not “speak with a definitive assessment” that Hamas was keeping women as hostages to avoid their speaking publicly about what they’ve endured. He said that Hamas had agreed to release women and children hostages, but then “refused to release them” and “came up with excuses why” that Miller said he did not believe were credible.

In an op-ed published by CNN last month, Sandberg called on the global community to put aside political differences and speak out.

“We have come so far in believing survivors of rape and assault in so many situations, yet this time, many are ignoring the stories that these bodies tell us about how these women spent the last moments of their lives,” Sandberg wrote.

“The silence on these war crimes is deafening,” Sandberg added. “It’s time to see beyond historical arguments about the past and political arguments about the future to denounce this now.”

In an interview with the Times of London published on Sunday, Police Commander Shelly Harush, who is leading Israel’s investigation into sexual violence and crimes, said, “It’s clear now that sexual crimes were part of the planning and the purpose was to terrify and humiliate people.”

Harush added that they have collected thousands of statements, photographs and video clips, including evidence of “girls whose pelvises were broken they had been raped so much.”

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Jake Tapper, Anna Glickman and Kirsten Appleton contributed to this report.

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