Why Can't Israeli Arab Town Stop the Murder of Its Women?

In the wake of the murder of Busaina Abu Ghanem last weekend, activists say the police must do more to intervene, although officers say they are stymied by a lack of witnesses.

It is noon in the Ramle neighborhood of Juarish. The quiet streets belie the violence and terror looming over the women of the Abu Ghanem family. Last Saturday night, Busaina Abu Ghanem was murdered, the tenth female victim in the family. The quiet, which appears to reflect a routine day, conceals fear and repressed cries.

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The victim’s house has no customary mourners’ booth and no visitors appear. The quiet is petrifying. “No one mourns murdered women,” a female resident of the neighborhood says bitterly. “Women are murdered repeatedly here and nobody cares. Everyone says it’s family honor and the issue is swept under the rug. It’s not manly or honorable.

“It’s not easy living here,” she continues. “Every little scream or gunshot brings me outside, even if I’m asleep. This isn’t the way to live. People talk among themselves, but they’re scared.” She says that someone wants to intimidate this generation by using violence.

Busaina was 36, a mother of 6 and pregnant. She was the fourth murder victim in her immediate family. Preceding her were her father’s second wife and two half-sisters. One is still missing but presumed dead. “Is it reasonable that three sisters in one family were murdered?” asked the resident. “It has nothing to do with family honor; it’s simply violence. My son said that she wasn’t the last one. We’re waiting for the next one.”

At a meeting of several female residents, these killings were likened to those committed by Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). When asked why people don’t complain, they said that anyone doing so would have their house riddled with bullets the next day.

Even though Busaina was the tenth victim since 2000, only two cases have been brought to trial, with convictions achieved after lenient plea bargains. Four of her brothers were convicted of manslaughter in the death of her two half-sisters. Three were sentenced to 20 years, while the fourth – a doctor who provided anaesthetics used in the murder – received a 12-year sentence.

These statistics have led to accusations that the police aren’t doing enough. “We want the police here, we don’t see their presence enough,” says the same resident. “In the Jewish sector, they would get involved more seriously. No one here takes responsibility, no one is punished. Whose honor is being protected? That of the women, or the murderers, or the police who don’t solve these cases?”

Samah Salima Aghbariya, a social worker and the founder of Noam (an Arab women’s movement), agrees. “I think this reflects poorly on the police, who can’t be proud of their dealing with Arab women’s fears,” she says. “Their message is that there are no consequences to murdering Arab women.”

A senior police source says one problem is that family members cover for the murderers or are afraid of testifying, hindering investigations. “In 90 percent of the cases, the family know the motive and perpetrator, but in the absence of their cooperation we can’t press charges. Without witnesses, we can’t proceed.” He claimed there was more witness cooperation in organized crime cases than in these ones.

In many cases, the police say, the families help in removing weapons and destroying evidence such as DNA or fingerprints. Wiretapping is possible, but most decisions are not made over the phone. “Our only source of intelligence is the public. We don’t have satellites,” says the police source.

Aghbariya resents this approach, noting, “We can’t expect abused women to come forward and testify, putting their brothers behind bars. They can’t swim against the current and provide the evidence.”

The police have realized in recent years that a different approach is needed. “We’ve enlisted social workers and services such as nonprofit groups that protect abused women immediately following reports of abuse, as well as using shelters, but the women don’t always cooperate,” says the source.

Aghbariya says that shelters “are problematic, since the women’s lives are at risk [but] they are the ones who end up imprisoned.”

One such woman was located by her family and murdered in the street. “They might as well stay in the environment they know. The model is wrong, since the risk is not dealt with, and the woman is told to flee. I think the threat should be addressed so these women can remain at home.” Aghbariya believes in a community-based solution in which communal protection is given to these women.

Social services are also constrained because, unlike in other cases, they can’t work with the threatening males while the women are sheltered. The entire violent family is often the problem in these cases. Temporary residence in shelters can be dangerous, since when the women return they are perceived as police collaborators.

The State Prosecution Office says it deals with these incidents severely. “We try to deal with threats, complaints or abuse before a murder occurs, and to apply the full measure of the law,” says a source there. “We are starting to provide lawyers to women’s shelters, so they can be helped by the system early on.”

The problem is that many women are too scared to file charges, while others encounter Hebrew-speaking policewomen who are unfamiliar with the Arab mind-set. The Lod-Ramle area has only one Arabic-speaking female investigator. The police counter that these women speak Hebrew fluently.

“The police are only one factor, which tries to reduce the probability of a murder occurring,” says the police source. “But social services also need to take preventive measures. They need to protect and aid the victims, suggesting ways of treating the threatening male. It’s a question of education – that is what will uproot the phenomenon, not punitive measures.”

A group of social activists met at Noam’s offices last week to look for solutions. They debated whether protest action was needed, or long-term activity in schools and mosques. They suggested that Imams discuss the issue in their sermons, and that lectures against violence be organized. After Abu Ghanem’s murder, MK Haneen Zoabi blamed the police for letting killers remain free.

All of Busaina’s acquaintances said she wasn’t murdered for defiling family honor, and that she was a good person who wanted to study and advance in life. Her female relatives were too frightened to speak out.