Murder of Palestinian women exposes Israeli divide over domestic violence
JAFFA, Israel - “There is nothing romantic about murder!” The phrase rang out loudly across central Jaffa on Friday 28 October, as hundreds of demonstrators carrying signs in Arabic, Hebrew and English took to the streets just south of Tel Aviv with a message: violence against women needs to end.
Earlier in the week, the Palestinian community in Jaffa had been overwhelmed by the murders of two female residents, Hawida Shawa, 44, and Huda Abu Sarari, 37.
The deaths of Shawa and Sarari occurred three days apart, Shawa having been found beaten to death in a car in the northern West Bank, and Sarari stabbed to death in front of family members in Jaffa. Police suspect that relatives of the victims were involved in each of their murders, adding their names to a growing list of Palestinian women in Israel who have been killed in similar circumstances.
Since January 2016, 15 women - eight Palestinians and seven Israelis - have been killed in domestic violence related murders in Israel. These figures point to a disproportionate number of Palestinian victims, as they only make up around 20 percent of Israel’s population. In many of these murder cases, family members (brothers, husbands, ex-husbands or relatives) have been accused of the crimes or being involved in their commission.
Fighting for equality on two fronts
The violence had become so widespread that on 6 October, Joint List MK Aida Touma-Sliman, head of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, spoke out against police inaction at an emergency Knesset session. Touma-Sliman told Middle East Eye that crimes against Palestinian women are not treated in the same way as crimes against Israeli women.
'Crimes against Palestinian women are not treated in the same way as crimes against Israeli women'
“Gender crimes against women are a problem that exist within all societies,” Touma-Sliman said shortly after the march in Jaffa. “What makes it a terrible situation for the Arab women is the fact that there is no serious effort put in to stop these crimes and to stop the escalation that is happening.”
Touma-Sliman explained that when a gender crime occurs in Palestinian communities in Israel, they are often seen as insular and receive less investigative attention than crimes that occur in Israeli communities.
Touma-Silman explained: "When a Jewish-Israeli woman is killed, usually the immediate questions that are raised are: 'Has she ever complained to the police about violence?'; 'Do the police or welfare offices know about her situation?'; 'Have they dealt with her and, if so, did they do everything they could to help her?
"So it is immediately the responsibility of the authorities. When an Arab woman is killed, the media asks 'What is the Arab leadership doing about it?' - as if it is an internal issue that should be solved inside the community, that it is a 'cultural' issue when it is Arabs killing their women. This is a way to escape responsibility to women who are citizens of the state," she added.
Along with Touma-Sliman, Samah Samaile is trying to change the way crimes against Palestinian women are treated by police and the authorities. Samaile is the founder of Na’am, a Palestinian women’s centre in Lod, about 25 kilometres southeast of Tel Aviv. She says that women are fighting for equality within their own patriarchal community, and outside of it, they are also fighting for equal treatment as Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“When I talk to police officers who say this is your culture, this is your identity, this is your tradition, I say no, this is not our tradition,” Samaile said. “This is violent men who want to control females around them, and they use this 'tradition' in order to make them feel good about what they are doing. And you [the police] are cooperating with them.”
Samaile told Middle East Eye that Na'am deals with a range of domestic abuse issues resulting from inequality between men and women in the Palestinian community, including helping young girls who might be forced into early marriage, to helping women finish their education or find jobs. But these issues are often exacerbated by unchecked violence in mixed communities in the centre of Israel.
"Lod and Ramle are known to be very violent cities in Israel, so there is no wonder that Arab women in these areas fall into the circle of violence," she said. "We are struggling in two places – in our battle inside our society, we are making much more progress than the struggle against the Israeli authorities."
At an emergency Knesset session, Chief Investigative Officer Dudu Zamir spoke on behalf of the Israeli police. He denied claims made by Joint List MKs that police forces were not following through on investigations, and reported that 40 of the 50 domestic violence complaints made in Lod in the past year resulted in indictments. He also said that in many of these cases, despite having the intelligence to pinpoint perpetrators, there is too little evidence to support murder indictment.
'There is no honour in any crime'
Both Samaile and Touma-Sliman have been instrumental in galvanising community support against gender violence, which has been growing rapidly since September. After the murder of Dua’a Abu Sharkh, a 32-year old mother from Lod, Samaile helped to organise one of the largest feminist marches in Israel’s recent history on 30 September.
Over 500 men and women turned out to protest continued violence and lack of intervention by police.
Sharkh was separated from her husband and was finishing a pre-arranged visit with their children, who reside with their father, when she was shot by a masked man. The Israeli police have reported that four men, three of whom are relatives of Sharkh, were arrested following the murder. After her death, Sharkh’s family said that she had suffered violent threats from her husband for years, and had reported her concerns to the police.
Between 2006 and 2016, there have been 15 murder cases in the Lod and Ramle area involving Palestinian women, only three of which, Touma-Sliman said, had resulted in perpetrators being arrested and brought to trial. Lawmakers and community members have begun to see a lack of investigative action and punishment, setting a dangerous precedent for those who may commit similar crimes in the future.
“In that situation, there is a feeling among everyone who is violent against women, who is endangering a woman’s life, that he can do it and still continue with his life,” Touma-Sliman said. “And we know very well that punishment is one of the components of preventing the next murder.”
For years, Israeli authorities and media have been treating these crimes as "honour killings," or "crimes of passion," terms typically used to describe the homicide of a female relative for suspected sexual impropriety. In 2010, Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi proposed a law that would prohibit the use of the term, which he said described murder in a positive way. The bill did not reach a vote, but in the years since, authorities have curbed their use of the term.
'What we are saying is there is no excuse for murder - not honour, nothing else'
“There is no honour in any crime,” Touma-Sliman said. “This term is not only refused by us because it is used as an excuse for the lack of action by the authorities, but it is also refused because it gives a kind of legitimisation to the murder itself, as if the murder had happened for a more noble cause. And what we are saying is there is no excuse for murder - not honour, nothing else.”
Preventing the next murder
Na’am is one of the few organisations in Israel that is dedicated to protecting, educating, and helping Palestinian women who are suffering from any kind of abuse. Salaime advocates for a holistic approach to her social work, creating networks among extended families, neighbourhoods and communities to form a larger support system. She is also well aware that many Palestinian women can be hesitant to report abuse to Israeli authorities or social workers, who make up the majority of the welfare base.
“Our struggle is like that for any other women in the Middle East,” Salaime said. “The Arab women [in Israel] are trapped between their communities, and from the other side we have the Israeli authorities, and if we seek help from them, we will be like traitors. Because we are a Palestinian minority, we have to manage our things inside, and not go to the Israeli policeman. This a red line to cross, and usually women cross that line only when they are really, really in danger.”
Just days after the march in Jaffa, members of Sadaka-Reut, the city’s well-established Palestinian-Israeli youth partnership organisation, were already gearing up for their next public protest. Rawan Bisharat, a co-director at the organisation, had helped gather local activists together immediately after Sarari’s murder the week before. She told Middle East Eye that their goal is to continue active dialogue about violence in their community.
'When we say no violence, we mean all kinds of violence, not only killing'
“When we say no violence, we mean all kinds of violence, not only killing,” Bisharat explained “There are a lot of women, maybe at the demonstration or in their houses, who are dealing with violence but they don’t talk. It’s not only killing, it’s all kind of violence. We want life for women. No violence means ‘the right to live’.”
Basharat works with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers through various workshops and leadership programmes to discuss problems within the Palestinian community, the Israeli community, and ways that they can work separately and together to bring about positive change. But the key, she says, is extending this openness across different community resources.
“Last week, what I saw here in Jaffa was that, for the first time, a lot of organisations and schools and also the Jewish people from the municipality all gathered together for one thing,” Basharat said. “They all want to do something, because this is not only our [Palestinian] issue, this is an issue for our entire society."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.