Farah (a pseudonym) sits in the safe house where she has been forced to flee and relives the life of suffering she has endured since being forced to marry a criminal when she was 17. With tears in her eyes, she recounts how he slammed her head against the wall, the time he cut her hand, and the threats from her husband and his family that caused her to separate from her children and live in hiding. “Every time I hear of a woman being murdered, I think about how I could be in her shoes, or that I’m next,” she says.
Farah’s husband was violent toward her from the start of the marriage, and attempts by her family to quell the violence were to no avail. The violence continued – and escalated – after the couple had children. When he drew a knife and cut her during an argument, Farah packed a bag and fled to her parents’ home. Shots were fired at the house a few hours later, and Farah was taken to a hideout apartment.
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Farah’s husband was arrested, sentenced to a few months in prison, and released. Farah and her family still receive incessant threats from him. “It’s inconceivable that such a man isn’t behind bars,” she says. She accuses law enforcement of having an overly lenient approach toward violent men. “Firmer steps are required. What is a restraining order? It’s a joke. Who respects it in the Arab community, anyway? The whole law has to be changed.”
She says the hardest thing is thinking of her children, who the court has ruled must be kept away from her for their own safety. “How long can I stay away from the children? I cry every night when they’re not beside me,” she says. “I don’t sleep well, don’t eat well, I’m always scared, anxious when I hear about women being murdered. How long will I stay here? Why is the person who is threatening me free while I’m locked up?”
‘A reckoning is needed’
Many women in the Arab community live under constant threat of death. Hundreds live in shelters, like Farah. Lod alone has 50 women defined as being under threat. Over the past decade, 20 women in Lod and Ramle have been deliberately targeted and murdered. Only five of the cases have been solved. 12 of the women were known to authorities before their murder.
One of these is Diana Abu Qatifan, 18, who was shot dead in 2019. After refusing to marry the man her family matched her with and fleeing the city with her boyfriend, a member of the Abu Ghanem family, the police knew she was under the most serious of threats. The police had a relative of hers sign a promise to “vouch for her safety” after she refused to go to a shelter, and “placed” her for a while in the home of Haj Kraim Jarushi, who serves as a community arbitrator. But Diana was murdered in her grandfather’s car in the family’s front yard.
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Abu Qatifan wasn’t the first of her family to be murdered – she was preceded by her mother in 2006 and her aunt in 2010. In all three cases, the murderer was not caught. Several relatives were arrested over the course of the investigation, but the evidence never amounted to an indictment.
This week, Rabab Abu Siyam was killed, the 20th Arab woman in Ramle and Lod to be deliberately murdered since 2011. In this case, like many before, the writing was on the wall. “This is the most frustrating incident we’ve had in the past year,” a senior law enforcement source tells Haaretz.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Samah Salaime, executive director of Na’am, Arab Women in the Center – the only NGO helping women in Lod and Ramle who are experiencing violence. “After the murder of Rabab Abu Siam, of Abu Qatifan, and of others who were under a high level of threat, a serious reckoning is called for. The police know all too well to assess the threats, but not how to arrest those posing a threat before they commit violence. According to the police’s spokesman, Rabab was put at the top of the threatening person making the threat at the top of the list?”
The police report a significant increase over the past decade in at-risk women’s cooperation with law enforcement, leading to a drop in murders. On the other hand, a change in murderers’ modus operandi makes solving the crimes more difficult. Today, police sources explain, people who want to kill a woman usually don’t commit the crime themselves.
“They pay a hitman and make sure they have an alibi,” a senior police official explains. “The sender is also usually not a single person. There is usually another family member, other than the father, son or husband, who has an interest in the murder.”
Thus, the police immediately arrests suspects following a murder, releases them shortly after due to lack of evidence. The investigating team may know they are behind the murder, but is hard-put to prove it. This is what happened in Abu Qatifan’s case.
“There is no great difference in the difficulty of solving the murder of a woman or a man in the Arab community,” the aforementioned senior police officer says. “The spectrum of suspects is immense and can encompass dozens of people. Sometimes it’s impossible to draw a certain, evidence-backed line between the person suspected of ordering the murder, and the shooter himself.”
Many of the victims in Ramle and Lod, unlike other areas, are connected to crime families – often not by choice – and often the motive for their murder is dual: criminal and domestic. “Most marriages are based on criminal interests,” a police source says, “and if such a woman refuses such a marriage or flees an abusive husband who belongs to a crime family, they retaliate against her.”
This is what happened in the case of Siham Abu Isbah, who survived a shooting targeting her car but was later killed when her car was blown up in the Jawarish neighborhood of Ramle. According to reports, she reported on on a family dispute, which sealed her fate. “Most of the families living in Ramle and Lod are not the veteran nucleus of the city, but newcomers, mostly Bedouin who came due to family feuds and are seeking criminal income in the city,” according to a police source. “They’ve seen how women advance much faster in city life, compared to men who are ‘stuck’.”
Many in the police believe more should be done to prevent the murders. “We offer shelter, but it’s a temporary solution for a few months, a year or two,” a senior officer says. “When they leave there’s no one to be by their side and they have no financial ability to live without the husband.”
In such a reality, the women are forced to leave their children with the family that is threatening them, and hope they won’t be harmed when they come to visit. That is what happened to Lorin Tefal, who was murdered last year in Ramle. Tefal was categorized as under high-level threats for years. The police offered to place her in a shelter or help her move to a foreign country, but she was afraid and refused.
Tefal fled her husband’s family’s home to Haifa, but was forced to return her children to her husband’s family. She followed them back to the area of their home. While driving in a car with a relative, she was shot dead by unknown assailants. The same relative, who had previously been arrested wearing a ski mask on his face near an apartment she was hiding in, was released after a few days in custody. The case has not been solved.
Once in a while, welfare departments in various municipalities employ a “red light” procedure. This happens in a case in which a social worker believes there is real danger to the life of a person under their care. In such a case, a roundtable of all relevant actors – police, welfare, as well as the threatened woman – is convened. At the meeting, the threat is explained and the woman is offered a protection plan. Usually the meeting ends in sending the woman to a shelter. Each year, some 20 woman leave Lod for shelter. The share of Arab women in shelters is double their share in the overall population.
In some of the cases that eventually ended in murder, the woman refused the protection plan offered to her. A senior welfare figure explained to Haaretz that, besides the fear that when they leave the shelter they will have no community or family to return to, they are also angry that they must enter a sort of prison while the man threatening them remains free. “It’s sad, and you can’t judge any such woman who refuses to receive protection and prefers to go on living her life even at the cost of risk,” the source says. “I tell such women: ‘You’re right, but these are the responses that currently exist to let you live.’”
The tools the state offers threatened women are scant: Shelter, a protection order, a secure apartment, special phones, distress buttons, and increased patrols. But absent cooperation by a woman, and absent sufficient evidence against the threatening individual, the police have little to do to prevent the next murder.
In 2019, Haaretz revealed that for the first time, courts had forced at-risk women into shelters against their will. This is what happened to the two sisters of Shadia Musrati, a mother of three from Ramle, who were forced into a shelter over a danger to their lives and because their testimony was vital to the case. “The police’s desire to protect citizens is to be commended, but that is not enough to give the police the power to illegally prejudice the two women’s right to freedom,” ruled judge Eyal Cohen, who freed the two after they appealed.
There have often been cases where Arab women defined as under high-level threat were abducted from or threatened in places considered protected, such as shelters and safe houses. This is why in 2017, the Public Security Ministry formed an initiative to fly threatened women abroad under an alias, through the witness protection program. The plan came after ran ad-hoc initiative by Central District police and others.
Thus far, a handful of women have sought to disappear and create a new identity abroad. The witness protection program has the tools to place them in the job market, teach them language skills, and change their identity and background. It’s a long and costly process, but it’s effective. After a small number of successful attempts over the past year, Public Security Ministry Director-General Tomer Lotan instructed the witness protection program director, Avi Neumann, to prepare an orderly plan to deal with the issue, aiming to place as many women as possible in the program.
Meanwhile, women under threat continue to pay the price. Nour (a pseudonym,) 28, has been living in a shelter apartment since 2008, when an attempt on her life left her with severe limb damage. “This event disrupted all my plans for life,” she says. “It is very difficult to go through what I go through, especially when the threat doesn’t stop. When a man undergoes an assassination attempt, he can try to reach a sulha (traditional conciliation), involve others – with women, there’s no such thing. The threat will go on forever.”
Nour says that Arab women face a double challenge: “We, women, are the weak link in a weak segment [of society]. It’s beyond violence against women – it’s murderers, it’s mercenaries, it’s criminal organizations,” she says. “As long as the police don’t eradicate crime in the Arab community, women will keep getting murdered. Today, I can gladly say that I’m not another number in the murder victim statistics, or another picture to be waved. The killers didn’t beat me – but the pain remains, and it will remain forever.”
The Israel Police said in response that it “treats every complaint or information regarding domestic violence in general, and intimate partner violence in particular, with all due gravity, with investigations handled professionally and thoroughly, in cooperation with all relevant actors and treatment and welfare agencies. In the case of intimate partner violence, the police acts with all the means available to it by law, all in accordance with the circumstances of the case, including arrest and remand until the end of proceedings, indictments and restraining orders against suspects, up to supplementary responses to protect the victim of the crime, along with welfare agencies.”