'If She Were Jewish, They Would Have Caught the Murderer': Arab Israeli Teen's Death Remains Unsolved

Question marks continue to loom over the murder of Diana Abu Qatifan, who was shot dead on the eve of her wedding. Just like the cases of her mother and aunt

Diana Abu Qatifan

Bakr Abu Ghanem is still not himself. Three months ago, his love, Diana Abu Qatifan, was murdered on the eve of her wedding at the age of 19, and he still has a hard time talking about what happened. Her case is far from being solved, just like those of two other murders in her family –those of her mother in 2006 and her aunt in 2010. All three were killed in the same location, near the family compound in the central Israeli city of Lod. The police believe that family members are behind the killings, but they do not have enough evidence for an indictment.

“We ran away because we were in love, and we realized that they wouldn’t let us live together,” said Abu Ghanem of Qatifan. Three months have passed since her killing. He has not recovered, still finding it difficult to speak.

After the young woman's death, investigators thought the trigger for the murder was the couple's escape to the West Bank village of Ni'ilin. Abu Ghanem said that their flight was an act of desperation, taken only after they realized that there was no chance her family would accept him as a groom, and that they planned to wed her to another.

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Abu Ghanem is 23 years old and lives in Ramle. He met Diana in school, although they weren’t in the same class, and courted her over three years. Bound by tradition, they hardly met face-to-face and spoke only on the phone. He said that the connection between them grew stronger with each conversation. She would send him gifts, and he would buy her phones so she could talk to him – from time to time, her family would cut off her phone and confiscate it. She also told him how they beat her, he said.

For three years, he repeatedly sent messengers to her family, asking for her hand in marriage. Every time, her family refused. At one point it seemed that Diana’s parents were won over, and Abu Ghanem’s family gifted them with gold, as is customary. There was an engagement party and a house was built for the couple.

The members of the Abu Qatifan family then changed their minds. “They returned the gold, they threw it at me,” Abu Ghanem said this week. They threatened his family, and once even came to their house. After a serious talk with his father, they went outside and fired bullets into the air.

He said that they told their daughter that they intended to marry her off to someone else. “That’s why we fled,” he told Haaretz. “She and I loved each other. We knew we had no one we could rely on, not in her family and not in mine.” They planned to elope through a local cleric in Ni’ilin and sign a marriage contract according to Islamic law, thereby forcing their families to accept their relationship. Diana discovered, however, that her ID card had been taken from her, perhaps by her family. The cleric could not sign the contract.

Even when they were far from their families, they barely saw each other. She slept in one house, and he in another. Even in Ni’ilin, they communicated by phone, but without the constant fear that they would be found out. “She told me that she didn’t want to go back to her family. She said she wanted to be with me from now on,” he remembered. “We thought that the moment we were married, the problems would stop. When we decided to run away, we said that if we had problems from now on, we’d solve them ourselves, with no one interfering in our affairs.”

And yet, he said, he also felt threatened. “People were willing to pay a lot of money just to know where we were. My entire family searched for and called us all the time. They said ‘come back and we’ll fix things.’ My father said nothing would happen to her, that the two families would finish this.”

Bakr Abu Ghanem and Diana Abu Qatifan at their henna ceremony.

The two wavered between hope and anxiety. In the end, said Abu Ghanem, “I was convinced. She said 'don’t trust anyone' and I didn’t listen to her. I told her, don't worry, I'm with you. I wasn’t afraid but she was tense, she didn't know what to do. I tried to calm her down and tell her everything would be okay.”

A plan was set up to bring the couple back and ease tensions between the two families, and they came to the border checkpoint, as agreed. “We waited for a while, I sensed that something was wrong and we turned back” he said. “Some dignitaries from Lod called me, asking, 'why did you turn around? Come back.' We went back. A police car came and took us to the Ramle station. They talked to her for four hours. They asked her where she wanted to go and who was threatening her.” Since she didn’t want to go to a shelter, she was sent, with her assent, to Hajj Kreim Jaroushi, who helps police mediate conflicts in the community.

“We agreed that she’d go there and he’d marry us,” said Abu Ghanem. Everyone told her to go home, that everything would be all right. "Her uncles sat with her as if nothing had happened. They told her to return and that there would be a wedding. They wanted her to feel at ease. I didn’t believe them. I told the police that if she went back she’d be dead.” After a few days, Hajj Kreim said that he could not host her any longer, and she returned to her grandfather's house.

No smoking gun

A few days after she returned to the family home, Diana was shot point-blank while sitting in the family car with her grandfather. He was injured, claiming that he was trying to deflect the murderer’s pistol. A source involved in the investigation defined the incident as an execution, intended to serve as a warning to other women in the extended family.

The vehicle in which the shooting occurred was parked on a path near a house in which 15 family members were present at the time. The area where the shooting occurred, and the small crime scene – located in an enclosed area with no surveillance cameras – posed challenges for police investigators. The family car was contaminated with the fingerprints of multiple family members. The family's many surveillance cameras were shut off and not recording at the time of the murder. Bullet casings were found in the car, but there was no weapon. Investigators used the best technology at their disposal, but so far have been unable to crack the case.

“That morning”, said Abu Ghanem, “she talked to me before she left her room in order to meet her grandfather and go out on some errands. She told me, 'I’ll get back to you, yallah, bye, we’ll talk,' and went down to the car.”

He has just returned to work after three months steeped in depression. Like the police, he is certain that family members knew what was about to happen. He believes he was also a target. “I went to do some shopping, and when I returned there were policemen there,” he recalled. “They were sure they’d hurt me too, and came to see if I was alive.” He said the police tried to calm him down and asked him to stay at home, as a safety measure.

Immediately after the murder, the 15 family members who were in the house at the time were brought to the police station for questioning. Police later arrested Diana’s father, grandfather, and two other relatives. In an attempt to pressure them and break what police suspected was a code of silence, investigators brought Diana’s blood-soaked clothes to the room in which her father was being interrogated. He broke down in tears, but kept telling the police that he didn’t know who hurt his daughter. One of Diana’s brothers, who was arrested, went with policemen to her grave. He did not attend her funeral, which was hastily held the morning after the murder. This was his opportunity to say goodbye to his sister. He stood by the grave, praying and crying, but he also said he did not know who had killed his sister.

While the grandfather was in detention, the grandmother and Diana’s 13-year-old sister were questioned. Investigators kept repeating their mantra: if we don’t solve this murder, we can’t prevent the next one in this family. But the family women gave no information, even warning one another not to do so.

One relative who was suspected of pulling the trigger fled, and investigators could not find him for a month. In the end, he turned himself in and was arrested. No forensic evidence was found on his body or clothes – unsurprising considering the time that had passed. He was released, but is still considered a key suspect.

“As far as I understand it, the police were looking only in the obvious places,” said the family’s lawyer, Zvi Avnun. “It was convenient to harass family members instead of thinking about other possibilities. They detained and interrogated the entire family and had to release all of them. They made up conspiracy theories which foundered again and again. They now face an investigative vacuum which leads nowhere. There are potential suspects in other clans who have a motive for this murder, but none of them have been questioned. This file, like others, will gather dust on police shelves. The murderer will apparently not be found, because the police aren’t investigating the real suspects.”

In addition to close family members, the police have also investigated many Lod residents. The police have emphasized that the investigation continues and that open murder cases continue to be pursued at all times.

The police still don’t know if the murderer may have been one of the people they worked with to get Abu Qatifan to return home, or whether it was someone who acted on their own. Along with close family members, many residents and members of other families in the area were questioned.

An open file

When women are murdered in Jewish society, in many cases the murderer is her partner. In Arab societies, it’s often a family member. A request for information, filed under the freedom of information law, was submitted by the Hatzlacha non-profit organization at the behest of Haaretz. It revealed that in 2018, only one Arab woman was killed by her partner. Thirteen others were murdered by family members or others, none of whom were caught.

According to information released by the police, a year before that, in 2017, eight Arab women were murdered, none by their partners. These figures haven’t changed much over the years. In 2013 as well, one Arab woman was murdered by her spouse, with 17 others murdered by other people. In many cases, the person pulling the trigger comes from a circle slightly removed from the family, but it’s believed that most family members know who the killer is.

In 2018, there were at least six cases of murdered Arab women that were not solved. These included those of Noura Abu Salub and Manal al-Frizat. The case of Shadiya Musrati, who was murdered in Ramle in December 2018, has not been solved. From time to time, the police detain someone, and it seems that the investigation is still on, although not with the same intensity. “Murder cases are on the shelf, but investigations continue all the time,” said a police source. Attesting to this were arrests made last February, with the detention of eight people suspected of being involved in the murder of Samar Khatib eight months earlier. So far, four Arab women have been murdered in 2019. Two of the cases may have been solved – that of Najla al-Amuri, whose brother is suspected of killing her, and that of Susan Watad, whose husband is suspected of murdering her.

Abu Ghanem said that there are many women who have been murdered. “I’m sure that if she were Jewish, they would have apprehended the murderer a long time ago," he said.