Last January Reem Qassem, 36, was stabbed to death in the stairwell of her Haifa apartment building. Her murderer, who had waited for her in the dark, slaughtered her with a knife and fled. Reem managed to call for a neighbor on the fourth floor before she collapsed in a pool of her own blood.
The murder shocked the central Haifa neighborhood of Hadar and struck fear into the hearts of its female inhabitants. Nine months have passed, and the case is still unsolved. The hysteria has died down, but the women who live in the area are still fearful of walking through dark alleyways and up the steep flights of steps that connect Hadar's winding streets.
The failure to solve the murder and the rumor that it was a family or tribal "honor killing" have affected the neighborhood's Arab women in particular. In some cases, their families asked them to come back home.
"This murder hit us in the face with reality," says Maqbola Nasser, a social worker who lives in Hadar. "A group of independent, active working women has developed here, and in an instant they can be murdered. It supports the message that leaders and obsolete opinions are stronger than we are," Nasser says, but she adds, "The murder won't keep us from continuing our independent, active lives, and that's the message that must be given to other young women who want to live in the neighborhood."
The police investigation seems to have reached a dead end. A police source confirmed that investigators believe a gang has taken it upon itself to avenge anyone who "defiles the honor of the Druze community," to which Qassem belonged. But the very suggestion that family honor or "clan motives" were behind the murder draws angry responses from Qassem's family in the Galilee village of Rama. They think the murder was criminal, perhaps a robbery gone wrong.
"Reem lived in Haifa for nearly 15 years, studying and working. If [the rumor] is true, then why did they only remember now?," asked her younger sister, Rula.
The Qassems are well-known in Israel's Arab and Druze communities. Reem's uncle Samih al-Qassem is a poet and the editor in chief of the popular Arabic newspaper Kol al-Arab. They are politically and socially active, and their children are given "an education based on openness," as Rula put it.
"In our family there are young women who go abroad to study. Even when Reem went to Haifa, no one expressed anger about her moving to the city," Rula said. "Everyone loved her, and every time she came home, she would visit all the aunts and uncles. There was never a disconnect," she said. Rula said the "family honor" direction of inquiry changed to "community honor" once the police realized the family involved. "It's so easy to say it, I personally never heard the concept of 'community honor," Rula continued. "But have the police thoroughly investigated other lines of inquiry like robbery?"
Amal Ziada, who lives in Hadar and is active in Kayan, a Palestinian-Israeli feminist organization, said "the veil of secrecy [about the murder] has given rise to speculation. It has grown out of control, and it hurts people's sense of personal security and the good name of the murder victim. If we knew the police had made arrests or had some direction [in the investigation], it would give proportion to the incident and the darkness of the alleyway would return to its proper scale," Ziada said.
Ziada and Nasser argue that the police treat the murder of Arabs differently from the killing of Jews. Instead of trying to find the perpetrator, Ziada says, "the police are busy stopping people who might be activists and that becomes a nuisance instead of providing security." The police said in response that all motives are being examined in the case, and emphasized that it is doing its best to give all citizens a sense of security.
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