A mother and her two young daughters, and a female student, are among dozens of people believed to have been kidnapped in Israel by Hamas fighters over the weekend.
The Palestinian militant group, which rules the Gaza Strip, launched an extensive air, sea and land attack on the country on Saturday, coinciding with the Jewish holiday Simchat Torah.
Government officials have since confirmed more than 100 people, including a Holocaust survivor, have been taken hostage, with those held captive believed to have been moved to Gaza.
In a post on social media, non-profit organisation Israel War Room claimed “mostly women” appear to have been kidnapped by the group at present time.
The group also repeated unverified claims that some hostages have been raped by Hamas militants.
“It has already been confirmed that Hamas fighters are using rape as a weapon of war,” it said. “There must be no mercy for these barbarians.”
Dr Melanie O’Brien, a Visiting Professor at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota, said war, such as the one raging in Israel, bears a “unique” toll on women and girls, who are historically targets of kidnapping and sexual violence.
“Conflict is highly gendered. Men are impacted by conflict often in a way that involves torture and as combatants [where] they receive injuries and can be killed,” she told news.com.au.
“Women are often not combatives [and] they’re not carrying weapons. They are at risk during conflict where civilians are not protected by the parties to the conflict so it makes it easy to take women.”
Dr O’Brien added sexual violence was “one of the biggest things that differentiates the experience of men and women” during war.
“It’s not to say that no boys or men experience sexual violence, but the sheer numbers of sexual violence and the commonality of it against girls and women is a whole other level,” she explained.
“There has been a lot of reports of sexual violence against girls and women in Ukraine by Russians, which has significant and ongoing effects including mental health and pregnancies.”
Reports of sexual violence ‘inevitable’ in Israel
There are yet to be any reports of rape by official sources in Israel, however, one survivor reported women were sexually assaulted after Hamas militants descended on a Supernova music festival in the country’s south on Saturday.
“Women have been raped at the area of the rave next to their friends bodies, dead bodies,” they told US publication Tablet.
The publication reported several of the rape victims were later executed, while others were taken to Gaza.
As the conflict continues, Dr O’Brien said reports of abuse in Israel, as in other international conflicts, was “inevitable”.
“In atrocities everywhere, and especially when women are taken into detention, there is an extremely high risk of sexual violence against girls and women. I would not be surprised if reports of that come out later.”
She added the footage of a German-Israeli woman Shani Louk being paraded in the back of a truck naked, already “indicates a possibility of sexual violence”.
Sexual violence used as a weapon of war
Dr O’Brien said the prevalence of sexual violence in times of conflict came down to power and the desire to dominate the opposing side.
“It is used to demonstrate to the men on the opposing side that they’re more powerful.
They’re saying, ‘you can’t look after your girls and women, you can’t protect them’.
“It often happens in front of family members, as well. And it’s often quite public and very brutal, so it echoes that idea of power and masculinity.”
“We’ve also seen in past and current conflicts that women have been taken into sexual slavery, and forced marriages.”
Pointing to other cases, she said “in former Yugoslavia, there were rape camps where women were taken to and kept”.
As the conflict continues, Dr O’Brien said there was hope the International Criminal Courts, who hold jurisdiction over Palestine, could step in on matters of rape if there was no action taken on a domestic level.
“The International Criminal Courts have laws prohibiting sexual violence in armed conflict.
“If it does take place, the ICC already has its radar up and they’ll be paying attention the same way that they’re paying attention in Ukraine, hopefully.”
Kidnapped from home
In the wake of Hamas’ attack, dozens of distraught Israeli families have scrambled for information on missing loved ones.
“I just want to be able to hug him,” said Omri Shtivi, 30, whose brother Idan went missing after a desert rave near the Gaza border came under attack by Hamas militants.
Speaking to AFP by telephone, Shtivi said the authorities had not contacted the family to provide information or offer help in finding his brother.
Police and the army’s Home Front Command opened late Saturday – about 16 hours after fighting began – a “command centre for missing persons” near Ben Gurion International Airport close to Lod in central Israel.
Israeli man Yoni Asher told Today his wife, two young daughters and mother-in-law had been taken hostage, after they visited their grandmother in the village Nir Oz near the Gaza border over the weekend.
He said he had a phone call with his wife, Doron Asher, before they were taken.
“She told me that there are terrorists inside the house, but when I saw the video later after I track(ed) her phone, there was no doubt in my mind that she was taken, they were taken, with my daughters, into Gaza by Hamas,” he told Today.
A series of videos on social media also show Hamas fighters capturing Israeli hostages at the Supernova music festival.
In one harrowing video, Israeli student Noa Argamani, 25, was filmed as she was abducted from southern Israel.
She screamed “don’t kill me” and stretched her arms out towards her boyfriend Avi Natan as she was carried away.
Later footage showed her drinking from a water bottle in Gaza.
Hamas threatens to execute hostages
Hamas threatened on Monday to kill hostages if Israeli air strikes continue “targeting” Gaza residents without warning.
The threat came after Israel imposed a total siege on the Gaza Strip, cutting off the water supply which sparked UN fears of an increasingly dire humanitarian situation.
The militant group claimed Israeli air strikes had killed four of the hostages.
“Every targeting of our people without warning will be met with the execution of one of the civilian hostages,” the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, said in a statement.
In a televised speech on Monday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared Hamas to the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, and said Israel planned to carry out a “massive” assault against Hamas with “unprecedented force”.
“Hamas terrorists bound, burned and executed children. They are savages. Hamas is ISIS,” Mr Netanyahu said.
He also vowed to “strengthen other fronts in the north against Hezbollah”, as well as in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
– with AFP