Bedouin Woman's Death Draws Dozens to Gender Violence Protest in Southern Israel

Organizer says many fear consequences of speaking out on women’s rights, meaning the 50 people who turned out in Rahat was a relatively large protest

Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
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A young girl holds a painting of a battered woman at the protest against gendered violence, Rahat, June 15, 2020.
A young girl holds a painting of a battered woman at the protest against gendered violence, Rahat, June 15, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

About 50 demonstrators gathered Monday outside the municipal community center in the southern Bedouin city of Rahat to protest violence against women among the country’s Bedouin population following the death of a resident and subsequent arrest of her husband.

The demonstration, which was composed mostly of women, followed the death of pregnant 28-year-old Rahat resident Rawan al-Katnani over the weekend. Police said they suspect she was struck by her husband on the head, initially rendering her brain-dead. Her death was later declared at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva. Her husband has been arrested and is suspected of reckless manslaughter and assault. Al-Katnani’s father said her husband had called her mother at about 3:30 A.M. Friday and said she was bleeding from the head after falling in the shower.

Hanan Alsanah, an organizer of Monday’s protest who has been active on Bedouin women’s rights issues, said that although she had been urged not to hold the demonstration, she felt it necessary to express her anguish in light of the Al-Katnani case. “I didn't receive threats, but it was suggested that I shouldn't [hold the protest] now because [Rawan al-Katnani’s] husband is still defined as a suspect, and not for murder," she said. “But those are legal matters. We know what happened, about the domestic violence she endured, and for me that was enough to decide that the protest should take place."

Alsanah added that despite the relatively small number of protesters compared to similar rallies in Tel Aviv or other parts of Israel, this was one of the biggest protests held against gender violence in the Negev area. While protests had been held at highway junctions outside of Bedouin communities, Monday's protest was inside teh city itself. For many of the protesters the demonstration in the Bedouin city was the first they had ever attended. 

“In a big way, it’s thanks to Facebook,” she noted. “It’s not easy to enlist the public. It's always worrying to speak about women’s rights. I've encountered it too. Women approach me and ask if they'll get in trouble if they come.”

Women protest against gendered violence in Rahat, June 15, 2020.
Women protest against gendered violence in Rahat, June 15, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

During the protest, demonstrators blocked the main street in Rahat. At one point, a truck driver, who apparently was unaware of the nature of the protest, got out of his truck, cursing the demonstrators and demanding that they get on the sidewalk. One of the younger women shouted back at him, at which point he got back into his truck and drove away.

Last month, in an unrelated case that also involved a Bedouin woman, homicide indictments were filed against the father, brother and nephew of Nibin Amrani. The defendants are suspected of killing her in the Negev Bedouin town of Hura, although her body has not been found.

Last week Mahmad al-Bahiri was sentenced to life in prison in the 2017 murder of his 19-year-old cousin, Hanan al-Bahiri, in the Bedouin town of Lakiya. The defendant’s father and brother were convicted as accessories to the crime. The victim had been kidnapped and killed after she and her husband divorced. The indictment alleged that the motive was the belief that she might start dating again and that they burned her body and buried the remains near their home.

One of the male protesters at Monday’s demonstration, 33-year-old Be’er Sheva resident Awad al-Asam, who was born in the Bedouin township of Abu Talul, said he had previously attended protests against gendered violence but wondered why more men didn’t turn out.

“In Rahat alone, there are tens of thousands of residents, and we are seeing very few [male] participants and half of them are not from Rahat,” he lamented. “I would imagine that maybe it’s fear; maybe people are busy with other things; maybe they don’t find it interesting. It seems to me that this problem doesn’t speak to a lot of people.”

Rahat residents protest violence against women, June 15, 2020.
Rahat residents protest violence against women, June 15, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Among the other men at the protest were former Joint List Knesset member Joumah Azbarga and Rahat city council member Mazen Abu Siam. Advancing the status of women is one of the major challenges for Bedouin society, Abu Siam said: “You need to understand. Our mothers were illiterate, and within one generation or two, we have a society of strong, opinionated women who know how to stand up for themselves.”

The city councilman did not spare his criticism of Bedouin men. “We deny them rights in order to exert power over them. There are women who wanted to come to the demonstration and their husbands told them not to go, that there would be cameras there,” Abu Siam said, adding that “if the level of education increased in our society, it would have a dramatic impact.”

Karam Jabareen, a 23-year-old pharmacology student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who is from the northern Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, said he came by bus to the protest after happening to see it on Facebook. “I saw the invitation and decided that I have to attend,” he said. “‘Women’ also means my mom, and our sisters, and all of us need to be partners in this fight.” Jabareen said he had expected to see many more people at the demonstration and that next time, he would put more pressure on his friends to come with him.