‘It took time to get one of my brothers to join me. I filled his head with ideas.’
S., 37, aided by his brother, stabbed his 34-year-old sister to death on her wedding day. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he’s been in jail since 2008
“I grew up in a city in the Triangle region [of Arab communities in central Israel]. My father was a factory foreman and a partner in the family business; my mother, a housewife. Ours wasn’t a religious family and not especially conservative. Everyone decided what to work in and what to study. We were seven siblings – four girls and three boys. I was the youngest, but I wasn’t the little boy who’s pampered and hugged. Just the opposite. When I made a mistake, I knew I shouldn’t bother coming home, that I’d be better off sleeping in the street, because if I went back I’d be walloped by my father. Over time, I realized it was more complicated. That this was my father’s approach – that he was in charge and I needed to be under his wing. I never dared look him in the eye. We would talk and I would be staring at the floor.
“The whole load and all the expectations were on me. That’s usually the role of the eldest, but my father always pushed me into that place. He thought that if control were in my hands, the house would be in a good place. He made a mistake.
“Eventually, I found myself managing things. Seeing to my brothers when they wanted to marry, promoting the family business, helping my parents when they got older. Everyone knew they could count on me, in the immediate family and also in the extended one. Very quickly, I rose to the top of the pyramid.
“My sister was five years older than me. Among the seven siblings we were the closest. She also worked for me as a secretary in the business for many years. My best memory of her is from when I got engaged. She came to me and said, ‘No matter how much money you need for the engagement and for the party – it’s on me.’ She was generous to me and helped me, and I ended up a traitor.
“She herself got engaged at a relatively late age, 34. She chose someone whom I knew, and whom I found unacceptable. A problematic guy, a former junkie. I tried to talk to her, but it didn’t help. She warned me that if I tried to separate them, she would elope with him.
“I was the only one in the family who was against that marriage. So it’s sort of strange to say that what I did was an ‘honor’ killing. Because no one in the immediate family asked me to restore the family honor. But I had bigger interests, in the extended family. At that moment, I felt that those interests would be hurt by the marriage, that it would cause me big losses. I wanted to stay at the top of the pyramid, and it’s impossible to hold on to that place when you’re humiliated. My feeling was that if she married him, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house.
“I didn’t hesitate for even a second. At that moment I had no alternative. Even so, it took me a little time to persuade one of my brothers to join me. I gave him proof, I filled his head with ideas so that he would also be angry at her.
“We murdered her an hour and a half before the wedding, in our house. She was just finishing her preparations for the event, and the groom’s family was on the way. We stabbed her with a knife. We decided beforehand that my brother would take responsibility for the act and I would look after him from the outside, because I’m better connected when it comes to work and having an economic base. After my sister was taken to the hospital, and after she died, he went to the police station and turned himself in. The thing is that there were witnesses who said that if I hadn’t been in the picture, he wouldn’t have been capable of doing it. At that stage, I still thought that I would be able to get away with it. Even when I was caught I didn’t confess.
“I was sentenced to life, but I wouldn’t accept it. I fought for my innocence, I appealed, I got all the way to the Supreme Court. When I was told that the appeal had not been accepted, I said to myself: There is justice. For four years I wouldn’t admit to the offense, but at some point it became too much, I couldn’t carry the lie anymore. When I joined a therapeutic group, in prison, at the age of 28, I learned for the first time what emotion is. Things began coming to the surface.
“The first person I confessed to was my wife. When I told my mother, she said she had a feeling I was involved, but at some level she didn’t want to believe. My father is the only one who to this day I haven’t found the strength to talk to about it. His health and his emotional condition won’t allow me to. But he knows, and a few times on the phone he said he hopes God will forgive me. I’m also in telephone contact with my brother who did the murder with me [and has been incarcerated also since 2008]. I have asked him many times to forgive me.
“With the extended family, it’s different. One of the uncles praises me to this day and tells me, ‘Well done,’ for what I did. We talked about half a year ago, I told him that today I understand that it was a mistake.
“The hardest thing was telling the kids. The oldest, my 13-year-old son, knew from a very young age why his father was in jail. People said things to him on the street, in school, he was exposed to a lot of humiliation. A year ago, I asked that my son be allowed to make a special visit, and I explained to him exactly what happened, that it shouldn’t have happened, that I made a mistake.
“In prison, I have met people who were doing time for the same reason. Ninety percent of them say that other people pushed them, that they had taken so much humiliation and so much violence in life that they didn’t have a choice. That’s not the case with me. There was no outside influence. It’s all me and only me. That’s why today I say that the murder I committed wasn’t for the family’s honor – it was murder for my own honor. In general, I would like everyone who has committed an ‘honor killing’ to look inside himself and think about what his real motive was. There is no such thing as family honor. That’s false. The Koran doesn’t say anywhere that you have to murder.
I don’t know yet when I’ll get out, but when it happens, I’ll have no problem going to all the mosques and shouting through the loudspeaker: I did it and I was wrong. Three years ago, I heard about a woman from my area whose brothers were planning to murder her. She was someone who really did make a mistake: She cheated, left home, ran off with another man. I asked my wife to take this on, and we hid her at our place. At first she didn’t believe that I wanted to help her. She said to me: “You? Who committed murder himself?” I told her to test me. She was with us for a year and a half. And people knew, threatened me. For some reason they didn’t have courage to cross the line of my house and take her. Today she’s free, with another child and pregnant. Maybe I did some sort of tikkun [correction] there.
‘I felt that I didn’t want to do the murder. My brother called with shouts and threats’
H., 27. When he was 17, he was asked by his older brother to murder that brother’s 20-year-old partner. He stabbed her to death in her apartment. He is scheduled for release in 2026.
“I grew up in the Bedouin ‘diaspora’ [communities in the south not recognized by Israel's government]. My father was married to three women, and we were 23 siblings altogether. He died when I was 2, and I don’t remember anything about him. I went through a very violent childhood from my brothers. Every one of them who was older than me, even by a day, had authority over me and could tell me what to do: Go, come, sit, come back, go to sleep, get up. And I couldn’t say no. I had no standing at home, I gave up on myself. I lived in fear.
“In school, I behaved violently in order to show who I was, so the kids would know they couldn’t get the better of me. I behaved violently with my cousins, too. I envied them for the things they had at home and I didn’t: clothes, shoes, games, a schoolbag. My bag was always smelly and torn.
“At that time, my older brother was in a relationship with a divorced girl, someone from outside the family. He lived with her in the city. One day he phones and tells me that they had separated, because she took his money, because she cheated on him. That was the brother I was the most afraid of, the one who was the most violent with me. And suddenly he’s talking to me like that and there’s a feeling of closeness between us. I start to feel appreciated by him, that he respects me, is giving me what I need. I didn’t know what the reason for the change was.
“After some time he called again. He told me it’s his honor [at stake], that there was no way to keep silent about the fact that she was going out with someone else, and he asked me to do the murder. He said, “You’re a minor, not yet 17, you won’t even get life, you’ll do a few years and go home.” He filled my head that way, with all kinds of arguments. And I took on his character, I walked around with both the feeling of honor and of the cheating. I started to feel like it was my situation, and that made it possibile for me to take the responsibility onto myself.
“In the meantime, my brother went abroad and I came to his wife’s house. Three times I stood outside her door, and three times I went home. Deep down, I felt that I didn’t want to do this murder. And each of these times, my brother would then call me with shouts and threats. It was important for me to please him, to prove that I could do anything, to show him that I was no longer the guy who gets stepped on, who’s humiliated, who’s ignored at home. I wanted him to see my manliness.
“A fourth time, I came and stood outside her door, and this time I broke it down. The woman was standing there. I was so afraid that I didn’t even look at her, I took the knife and started to stab, I don’t even know where. I had never met her before. The first time I saw her was when I killed her. Her daughter from her previous marriage was there, too, a 2-year-old. I put the girl in another room and shut the door, so she wouldn’t see her mother like that. After that I left the house fast.
“After a week the police caught me. I wasn’t surprised. I knew I was going to jail, it was worth it to me for the honor. During my first days after being arrested, I felt that I could rest at last, forget it all. But then I started imagining scenes from the murder, and I couldn’t get them out of my head. I started to understand where I was, what I did.
“Since then, my brother has remained abroad. He didn’t say thank you, but he did call to ask if I needed things, if I was short of anything in jail. It took a number of years before I got to a situation where I could open up and tell him that I was angry with him. He was silent. He had no words.
“The rest of my family was in shock over what I did, they didn’t even know about my brother’s relationship. My mother was really angry at me, because this was the second such case with us, and she knows what it can do to the family. She had a relative, 20-something years old with two children, who was seen hitchhiking and was murdered because there was a rumor that she was going with another man. This had been three or four years earlier, and my mother went into a depression from it. After my case, her condition deteriorated even more, also medically. With us, the women are afraid, they keep silent. They see everything with their eyes, but they have no say, they have no worth.
“My mother is still angry, but she visits, she helps, brings me snacks. The other brothers have jobs, family. At first, they also visited, but lately they don’t have time. I met a woman through her father, who was with me here in prison. We got married last year. I’ll soon start getting furloughs.
‘I took the knife from the kitchen and went straight to her room’
T., 25. When he was 15, his father induced him to murder his 20-year-old sister. T. stabbed her to death in her bed, slitting her throat. He is scheduled for release in 2026.
“I grew up in a city in the territories. There were nine of us. Dad, Mom, six boys and my sister. She was the oldest. She didn’t know how to read or write, nor could I and my mother, but she had an interest that she would always share with me: She wanted to learn how to be a cosmetician. One time she talked about how she would like to go to a course, and my father refused. Talking to him was hard for her.
“I’m the middle child. I started working when I was 11. First in renovations, in restaurants and in hotels. My last job before getting arrested was in a meat plant. My father didn’t work, only my mother, and I had to help them. My father would hit us all, me too, and also my sister. It all started when he said that there were rumors about my sister. Because of that we moved to a different city, to start a new life.
“I wasn’t home much then, I was always working, and I also had a room at work where I could sleep. One day my father called, and said, ‘Your sister’s run away from home, come back now.’ I get on a bus, and when I get to the neighborhood, I see the kids coming back from school, and I think to myself that everyone probably already heard about what happened in our home. I started to feel angry at my sister. When I got there, my father told me that she run off, and was at a home for battered women. We found out that she called my mother from there. My sister had experienced serious violence from my father. She wanted to put an end to it, to stop the problems. But in the neighborhood, people didn’t know any of that. The rumor was that she had run off with a man.
“I asked my father what had happened. He said, ‘I hit her one night, and in the morning we couldn’t find her.’ A few days later, my mother persuaded her to come back, on condition that my father would guarantee in writing that nothing would happen to her. So, in fact, he went to the police with my two older brothers and he signed that if something were to happen to her, it’s their responsibility. She came back, and we went on living like usual, but the rumor was still floating around that she was actually in Haifa, that she had gone off with a man. That’s how it got around. Word of mouth. From outside it looks like things were normal, but within the home there was a lot of anger, especially at her. People on the street also started to making remarks. It was with me all the time.
“One day my father asked me to come and sit with him, he and I were the only ones who were home. He said to me, ‘You know how much I think of you, trust you, love you, and now I need your help.’ Fifteen years, I don’t hear from him, and suddenly, at that moment, when he said those things, I couldn’t think about anything else. He went on, ‘Listen, we can’t bear the rumors anymore, we have to put an end to it.’ I asked him what exactly he wanted me to do. He answered, ‘Finish it, you know how.’”
I couldn’t sleep all night. I remember looking at the clock and seeing that it was 5:02. Everyone went to work, but I didn’t. My body started to shake, my hands became sweaty. I took a knife from the kitchen and went straight to her room. When it was over I changed my clothes and went to sit in the yard. My father came back after he had driven my brothers [to work], and I told him that I had done it. He asked, ‘What did you do?’ I said, ‘I killed my sister.’ He looked at me in this way, from top to bottom, and then he went to the neighbors and said, ‘The boy killed his sister.’
“When I got to the police station in Taibeh, I told myself this was it, this would be my life from now on and this is where it will end. I decided that I wasn’t going to talk to anyone and no one would talk to me. Seven years I stayed closed inside myself.
“One day my brother called and told me I had a new niece. I asked what her name was. He said, ‘We thought about naming her for our sister, but we didn’t want you to be angry.’ I said that it was the other way around, that if they didn’t give her that name, I would be angry. They started to bring the girl on visits, and that warmed my heart, it started to wake up things I didn’t know I had inside me.
“After the event, my mother divorced my father. With me, she didn’t break off relations. I would call, ask how things were, everything’s okay, and we would hang up. Gradually I started to ask her things about herself – ‘What did you do today? What’s happening with you?’
“Not long ago they showed the movie ‘Women of Freedom’ [a 2016 documentary by Abeer Zeibak Haddad, a Nazareth-born actress and director, about so-called ‘honor killings’] in our block. There was a scene of a mother who comes to clean her daughter’s grave. That broke me. I could feel for her. It was like I could see my mother in the body of that woman. Cleaning the grave, talking to my sister, one on one. I sat in a corner of the room and started to cry.
“My mother visits my sister’s grave three times a year – at Ramadan, at Eid al-Fitr and on the anniversary of her death. She goes to the grave and stays next to it all night. I made a rule for myself not to call her on those days, because I know that when she leaves the cemetery, she [comes home and] goes straight to sleep. I never had the courage to cry in front of my mother. She was here a week ago, a few days after she was with her. On the one hand, she visited her girl in the grave, on the other hand she visited her boy in prison. She sat next to me and I felt that we were having a conversation through our eyes, without even speaking. After she left, I called her and told her that I felt her pain. She told me, ‘Nine years I waited to hear that from you, I am happy that at last something is happening within you.’ I am supposed to get out in another eight years. My dream is to strengthen the ties with my mother and to raise a family.
“My father is also doing a life term for the murder. We were kind of cut off from each other until I started to get messages through people in the prison that he wanted to talk to me. So we would talk here and there, but without any emotion. Once, I plucked up my courage and said to him, ‘Why did you take a 15-year-old boy and tell him to do something like that? Why did you push me to do it?’ The conversation went on half an hour, mostly shouts, from both sides. He said to me, ‘You also lived in it, whether it in the home, or outside it, it was known that it would end like that.” He explained to me that he didn’t want my brothers to do it, because I was a minor, and as a minor I wouldn’t get a long prison term. I felt that I didn’t want to hear his voice."
Making a murderer
July 2018, Rimonim Prison, a maximum-security facility near Netanya. The inmates in the unit for the treatment of domestic-violence criminals meet for their weekly conversation with the unit’s director, Capt. Maya Ofgang, a social worker in the Israel Prison Service. In the previous meeting the inmates watched “Women of Freedom,” and now Ofgang asks them to share their thoughts about the film. The first to ask for the floor is someone who’s been incarcerated for 17 years for murdering his sister and only recently joined the therapeutic program.
“When the movie started, all I wanted was to get up and leave,” he relates. “Since then, I can hear my sister telling me, ‘Don’t murder me.’ A second inmate, who also murdered his sister, rejects the “family honor” concept. ‘It wasn’t like that with me,’ he says. ‘I was frustrated in my life, and I thought the only way to get things was by violence. With my sister, I felt a little insecure. She had joie de vivre, friends, she knew things, and I was closed, shy.”
The unit’s professionals also object to the term “family honor”; they prefer “culturally based murder.”
“There is no dynamic here of father, mother and two children, but a family system which is effectively a ramified political mechanism,” Ofgang told me when we spoke after the group session. “When the structure is a father, three wives and dozens of children, the tension among the wives also becomes important – questions such as who the youngest wife is and who was the first one, and whether the boys are full brothers or half-brothers. Sometimes, in the admission interview, when prisoners are asked how many siblings they have, they might reply, ‘Six brothers and my sister.’ In other words, the woman isn’t counted.”
According to another social worker in the unit, Capt. Ayala Afek, everyone has a role in the family mechanism, including the mother. “Even if the mother all but ignored them in childhood, it’s hard for them to be angry with her,” Afek says. “They believe she was a good mother, warm, who had no prior knowledge of the murder. As a result of that binary approach, they are deeply split about what makes a ‘good woman’ and a ‘bad woman.’”
Ofgang, asked to describe the profile of this sort of killer, says, “Men who themselves underwent violence, who were silenced in their childhood, who never learned how to express feelings, whose emotional range is very narrow and who tend to deal a lot with the dynamic of power relations. Their attack on the daughter of the family is cold, planned and calculated. There is something more restrained and reserved about it, as compared to manifestations of impulsive violence, which are characteristic of inmates who harmed their partners.”
How is a person convinced to murder his sister?
Afek: “You create a story for them. The sister did such and such, it’s ruining the family, and the only way to save us from destruction is for you to do this killing.”
Ofgang: “There is a mechanism of those who send and those who are sent – the envoys, who are called on to commit the murder in practice. The envoys are usually young, in some cases minors. It’s explained to them what to be angry about, they’re oriented in that direction. From the distance of time they can look at their sister as a subject, but at the time she is totally an object for them. That’s why many of them talk about an experience of disconnect.”
Most of the men who spoke with Haaretz in fact described a pattern in which they were coaxed to commit the murder by older relatives. Samah Salaime, founder of the NGO Na’am: Arab Women in the Center, which assists Arab women who are victims of violence, has also noticed that very often, the brother who assumes most of the responsibility is the weak link in the family. “In crime families too they take the youngest son and sacrifice him,” she says, based on 20 years’ experience working with women victimized by violence in Lod and Ramle. “But it’s not only a matter of age. Many times the brother who takes the blame for the murder is the weakest and most ostracized in the family, the one that wants to be accepted into the family gang. The murder is a kind of initiation rite into this elite.”
Salaime, too, is opposed to the term “honor killing,” because “the honor is only an excuse, a kind of garbage can into which all kinds of men’s justifications for being in control of or harming the women around them can be tossed.” In the Bedouin community, she adds, “the bar for affronting ‘honor’ is seemingly lower, because the woman comes from a traditional society, though in crime families it’s different. The women in those families can usually be what they want, the important thing is not to be an informer or be suspected of collaborating with the police. They can go out with men and, you know, ‘affront honor.’ Bisan Abu Ghanem [who was murdered in Ramle in 2014] was a well-groomed woman, a kind of beauty queen who was divorced twice, and none of it bothered her family. The line was crossed when the family suspected that she was divulging secrets. And then suddenly, ‘honor’ was whipped out, which in practice prepared the way for her murder.”
Said Tali, the national inspector on domestic violence in the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, discerns geographical differences as well. “There is more violence in the Bedouin community, and the oppression is more intense, but there has actually been a decline in the number of murder cases there,” Tali says. “The further north we go, the more women there are who question the old order and allow themselves ‘to rebel.’ In mixed [Arab-Jewish] cities, such as Ramle and Lod, there’s more of an inclination to openness, and then the potential for friction with the old norms increases. So it’s not surprising that there are many cases of murder in them. It’s important to remember that in those cities, too, the majority of the Arab population is of Bedouin origin, and the Bedouin norms still set the tone there.”
More broadly, Tali perceives that the term “honor” assumes variable forms. “The Arab family is becoming smaller, less clannish, and women are aspiring to more education and employment. These elements create dissonances and tensions with old worldviews.” He adds that although the public tends to assume that the “honor” issue is related to provocative sexual behavior, in actuality it is more deeply rooted in the question of how far the woman accepts the authority of her male relatives. “There are many women who have been murdered even though they did not do anything sexual. For example, a woman who doesn’t want to get engaged to a certain person, or who insists on getting a job, even though her husband objects.”