Israel Fails to Enforce Ban on Polygamy in Bedouin Community, Officials Say

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Women look at a clothing stall at an open-air market in the Bedouin town of Rahat in Israel's southern Negev region, earlier this month.
Women look at a clothing stall at an open-air market in the Bedouin town of Rahat in Israel's southern Negev region, earlier this month.Credit: HAZEM BADER - AFP

State prosecution and Israel Police officials have admitted that the state is not adequately enforcing a ban on polygamy among Bedouin, saying that men in the community manipulate the law in order to take additional wives.

According to figures presented at an interagency discussion two months ago, hundreds of polygamous men have been detected in recent years, without facing legal consequences.

The meeting, held at the Justice Ministry, brought together representatives of a committee established in early 2017 by the ministry’s director general at the time, Emi Palmor. In 2018 the panel issued a comprehensive report recommending ways to curb the practice, and the committee now monitors its implementation.

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In addition to officials from four different government ministries, the prosecution, the police and the National Insurance Institute, attendees of the meeting included representatives of the Sharia court system and of Regavim, a pro-settler nonprofit organization co-founded by the head of the far-right Religious Zionist party, Bezalel Smotrich.

Among the findings of the Palmor committee’s 2018 report was that polygamous marriages compromise the rights of women in them. It noted that the existing law against polygamy was not being enforced, and specified that this must change.

The director of the Sharia courts, Iyad Zahalka, said the data shows a steady decline in polygamy, as a result of changes in Bedouin society in Israel and a growing awareness of the ban.

All Muslim marriages in Israel must be registered in a Sharia court. Zahalka said that 36 polygamous marriages were registered in Sharia courts in Israel, down from 47 in 2019 and 53 in 2018, 47 in 2019 and 36 in 2020. “The main problem is with the older generation; younger people recognize the problems with the issue. We must increase the spread of information about the social damage of polygamy,” he said.

Representatives of the police, the prosecution and the Central Bureau of Statistics refuted Zahalka’s claims, saying that in fact the incidence of polygamy among Israeli Bedouin was growing.

“The numbers I’ll show point to increasing numbers of polygamous men. The problem is still there,” said Ahmad Halihal, head of the CBS demography department. According to the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, in southern Israel alone – where most Israeli Bedouin live – there are currently 6,680 polygamous men, with 834 new ones added between 2017 and 2019. Halihal noted that not all state agencies provide the bureau with information so that the numbers he was showing reflected incomplete data. Presumably, he said, there were many more polygamous men.

In 2017, the attorney general ordered the enforcement of the law prohibiting polygamy, which was passed in 1977. According to Halihal, 121 of the 843 polygamous men had married before the 2017 guideline. The remaining 713 are presumably could be prosecuted.

According to data obtained under the freedom for information act by the nonprofit Lavi, for Good Government and Human rights, very few polygamous men have been charged, with most cases closed. In 2018, 133 files were transferred by the police to state prosecutors, but only 16 indictments (12 percent of the total) were filed. The corresponding numbers in 2019 were 44 and 5. In 2020, they were 58 and 13. In total, only 34 indictments were filed against the 713 polygamous men who married in or after 2017.

Most of the files were closed under the pretext that “the circumstances are unsuitable for a criminal investigation or prosecution.” A formal justice ministry document that has reached Haaretz says that even if the marriage took place after 2017 but long before enforcement authorities learned about it, and if there were no aggravating circumstances such as exploitation or harm to a woman or her family, this would be taken into account when considering enforcement. Police Superintendent Attorney Meital Graff revealed that polygamous men find ways of bypassing the law. Instead of turning to Sharia courts, they turn to state authorities, providing an affidavit stating that the women are common-law partners, which grants them recognition and social benefits. “There is a drastic drop in the number of files opened due to a restricted definition of the violation of what constitutes a marriage,” said Graff. “Many reports involve a common-law partner, thereby avoiding the commission of a criminal act.”

The state prosecutor for the Southern District, Alon Altman, confirmed this, adding: “There is a social phenomenon of polygamy which is maintained through manipulation of the law, thus evading prosecution.” Altman said that the law allows for five-year prison sentences on people convicted of polygamy, but that in practice, only light sentences are given. “To date, there have been only nine cases where prison terms were imposed – two of five months, four of seven months, one of eight months and two of 11 months,” said Altman.

The National Insurance Institute is also involved in enforcement, with its investigators looking for fraudulent claims, which abound in Bedouin communities, according to the Palmor report. Women present themselves as divorced or as single mothers, for example, asking for benefits while continuing to live in polygamous frameworks. Common-law relationships don’t exist in Bedouin society without a prior religious ceremony that is concealed from the state. Senior law enforcement officials say that either the law should be changed or the police must increase efforts to gather information showing the existence of religious ceremonies held by people to be in a common-law relationship. There are cases in which divorced women continue to live in a polygamous family. In order to receive maximal benefits, Sharia courts declare that their child-support payments are very low.

The head of the Sharia courts agreed at the meeting to receive a CBS report on the costs of raising a child in the Negev, with a recommendation for minimal alimony payments.

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