Weaponising Underwear: Genocide with a Semi-Pornographic Twist

PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 15 Apr 2024

Belen Fernandez | Al Jazeera – TRANSCEND Media Service

An Israeli soldier stands in an apartment during a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, 8 Nov 2023. [AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg]

What should we make of Israel’s obscene social media stunts in Gaza?

12 Apr 2024 – Let’s pretend for a moment that, in the course of waging war against the state of Israel, Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip had taken to posing for social media posts with lingerie belonging to Israeli women who had been forced to flee their homes and/or killed in the war.

Imagine the moral outrage that would swiftly ensue, inevitably entailing racist and self-righteous allegations of Arab perverseness, the barbaric sexism of Islam, and the violent tendencies of sexually repressed Muslims.

The Fox Newses of the world would have had a field day.

As it turns out, a version of this hypothetical spectacle is true – except that it stars Israeli soldiers and Palestinian women’s lingerie. A recent Reuters article titled “Israeli soldiers play with Gaza women’s underwear in online posts” describes how combatants from the world’s self-appointed “most moral army” have been “posting photos and videos of themselves toying with lingerie found in Palestinian homes, creating a dissonant visual record of the war in Gaza”.

In one video highlighted by Reuters, an Israeli soldier “sits in an armchair in a room in Gaza grinning, with a gun in one hand and dangling white satin underwear from the other over the open mouth of a comrade lying on a sofa”.

Another visually “dissonant” episode features a solider perched on a tank, who proceeds to introduce his “beautiful wife”: a female mannequin sporting a helmet and black bra.

In response to the news agency’s inquiry, an Israeli military spokesperson “sent a statement saying the [army] investigates incidents that deviate from the orders and expected values” of Israeli soldiers.

And yet it is pretty perverse in itself to even talk about “values” in the middle of a genocide and Israeli-made famine in the Gaza Strip.

Since October 7, Israel has killed nearly 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza, among them some 14,500 children and 9,500 women – numbers which are presumed to be grave underestimates. More than 76,000 people have been wounded as homes, hospitals, schools and everything else that is bombable have been bombed. Children are starving to death.

Rather than constituting an isolated blot on the morality of the Israeli armed forces, then, social media posts of Palestinian women’s underwear would seem to be aligned with general moral depravity and therefore entirely consistent with Israeli military “values”.

The United Nations Human Rights Office spokesperson has declared such posts to be “demeaning to Palestinian women, and all women”. So, to be sure, is mass slaughter.

That said, there is plenty to say about this sort of exercise in militarised semi-pornography as a calculated assault on the dignity of women in an overwhelmingly conservative society. Ultimately, the taunting display of Palestinian lingerie amounts to an almost pathetically cliched violation of the intimate space of Gazan women. But to be playing around with the panties of people you are killing takes depravity to another level.

Call it Orientalist fetishization with a genocidal twist.

Granted, it’s not just the females of Gaza who are eligible for such “demeaning” treatment; Gazan males can be intimately humiliated, too. In December, dozens of Palestinian men and boys sheltering at two Gaza schools were detained by the Israeli army, stripped to their underwear, and made to kneel on the ground.

The degradation of Palestinian women is all the more obscenely hypocritical, however, in light of the Israeli military’s condemnation of Hamas for its “discrimination” against women in the territory it controls. A section on the military’s English-language website devoted to “The Status of Women in Gaza” laments that “basic rights are often systematically denied” to females, who are faced with “decreased educational opportunities” as well as “limited employment opportunities” – a situation that is clearly best rectified by Israel’s bombing of most such opportunities to smithereens.

The website reports that “violence against women continues at alarming rates” in the Gaza Strip. With at least 9,500 women now killed by Israel in the past six months, you can say that again.

And while the Israeli army’s co-ed nature enables the institution to portray itself as a bastion of women’s rights and female empowerment – read: equal-opportunity killing – there’s no shortage of intra-institutional sexism and gender-based oppression. A 2022 report by Israel’s State Comptroller, for example, found that approximately one-third of Israeli women performing mandatory military service had experienced sexual harassment the previous year.

The state of Israel has also weaponised the bikini-clad and otherwise half-naked bodies of its female fighting forces in order to effectively sexualise ethnic cleansing, as in the case of the 2007 Maxim magazine spread that tantalisingly wondered whether Israel’s female militants were not in fact “the world’s sexiest soldiers”.

As for the current lingerie tactic being deployed by social media-savvy troops in Gaza, the weaponisation of humiliation only compounds the suffering of Palestinian women – and men – who, forced to flee their homes, have already had their intimate space violated in every possible way.

And as the Israeli military simultaneously gets off playing with underwear and perpetrating genocide, it is a “dissonant visual record”, indeed.

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Belen Fernandez is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine and has written for the New York Times, London Review of Books, Current Affairs, and Middle East Eye, among numerous other publications. She is the author of Checkpoint Zipolite: Quarantine in a Small Place (OR Books, 2021), Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World (OR Books, 2019), Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon (Warscapes, 2016), and The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (Verso, 2011).

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