Arabs in Israel Suspected of Killing Their Wives Win Another Battle: Custody of the Children

Half of all femicide cases in Israeli-Arab society are unsolved ■ Partners are often able to gain custody of children even when it is clear they are involved in the murder

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An illustration of violence against women.
Credit: Marina Grechanik

For weeks, Rabab Abu Siam knew her death was imminent. The threats against her by her husband and his family were clear, consistent, even detailed. “She knew everything before the murder,” says someone familiar with the details. “Who’d received the money and who would do it. She told her family in real time.”

The police were also aware, but it didn’t make much difference.

On the evening of July 26, several armed men entered the yard of her family home in Lod, central Israel. Rabab stood there as if waiting for them. “Go ahead,” she said, protecting two of her daughters with her body. She may have saved them but she was killed on the spot. Her mother, Amina, saw everything.

Yet a week earlier, Rabab had still retained some hope that things might end differently. When she stood before the qadi in the Sharia court (the judge in an Islamic religious court), she told him she would relinquish all her rights in order to gain a divorce, even full custody of her three daughters.

It was her daughters who prevented her from accepting a protection plan offered by the police. She couldn’t take them from their natural surroundings or her other relatives. She understood that she could only hope to survive if she gave up her daughters.

But the divorce agreement was not signed in the courtroom. According to two people who were present, the husband requested another postponement, for his own reasons. A few days later, while he was abroad, several assassins killed Rabab. Upon his return to Israel, he was arrested on suspicion of ordering the murder, but released shortly afterward.

A demonstration against violence against women in Arab society, in Wadi Ara.Credit: Amir Levy

The story of this murder is complicated and a great deal of information is still unknown. Lod’s social services department refused to cooperate for this story and other details remain under gag order. But there is one issue that is abundantly clear: the three daughters and the father’s desire to retain full custody of them.

This isn’t unusual. In recent years, the police and welfare systems have seen that many cases of domestic violence center around the children. And these disputes are not only legal in nature. They usually involve specific threats, sometimes even deeds. It also transpires that in certain cases, the killing of the mother was a move toward helping the father receive full custody of the children, or at least an effort to achieve that goal.

The fate of Rabab Abu Siam’s three daughters – the eldest of whom is 11 – has yet to be decided. For now, they are in the custody of grandmother Amina, who is defined by the court as a temporary guardian. At present, she is engaged in a legal battle with the girls’ father over custody. He is free, even though he is suspected of ordering the hit. No response was received on his behalf for this story.

Other suspects in the case were initially arrested but at present are not behind bars. Sources working on the case on behalf of the court fear for their lives and the lives of their families. They are all terrified.

Rabab Abu Siam with her three children.

The law does not side with Amina. It determines that a parent can be denied custody only if there is an indictment for crimes of domestic violence. As of now, the father is only a suspect. In today’s Arab society, where crime runs rampant, the case of Amina is not a rarity but in many ways a prime example of the problem.

Powerless systems

Haaretz has been collecting information about femicide cases in recent years. An examination of the data – which is based on media reports and sources in the courts, welfare system and police – reveals that 90 women were murdered in Israel over the past five years. Of them, 44 were Arab – about twice their percentage in the general population. Only half of these murders were solved, compared to 95 percent in the Jewish community. The murderers of 22 women, in other words, are still free and not even facing an indictment.

Senior police officers who spoke to Haaretz in the past about some of the cases say they know for certain who ordered the murder, who drove the car and who pulled the trigger. But that information has not been sufficient evidence for arrest, indictment and conviction.

The welfare and legal systems both agree that in the absence of a convicted murderer, there are more and more tragic outcomes. “After the murder,” says a source in the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry who specializes in domestic violence, “we can offer therapy and guidance – but we can’t change laws.”

In effect, the hands of the welfare services are tied. The moment a man suspected of murdering the mother of his children is released from police detention, there is no clause in the law that can prevent him from demanding custody of his children.

A demonstration in Lod following the murder of Rabab Abu Siam last summer.Credit: Ilan Assayag

This is also what happened when the sister of Maryam (not her real name) was murdered and the husband received full custody of their four children.

“They know he murdered her,” says Maryam about her nieces and nephews. Nobody was convicted of the murder, though the children did see the person who killed their mother at their father’s house: a man wearing a ski mask. At the time, they thought he was a thief. The parents were already divorced when the shooting happened and custody arrangements were in place. Nobody saw the father at the scene of the crime.

After the divorce, the children’s mother had lived with her parents, threatened by the relatives of her former husband – who evaded arrest for their actions. She herself refused to go to a shelter for victims of domestic violence. When she was murdered, her family realized who had won the battle for the children.

“We didn’t see her for two years,” says Maryam regarding a young niece. “She spent her entire adolescence alone.” Today Maryam is able to meet with the niece and her siblings occasionally. “When she’s with me, she hugs me and doesn’t let go. She once told me: ‘You smell like Mom,’” the aunt recounts. “At present, they come to our house only in coordination with him. They know they can’t mention his name in the house.”

‘They know the children are broken’

In these cases, the mother and her relatives feel completely helpless with nowhere to turn – both before the murder and afterward as well. “The welfare services can’t actively protect these families,” says a senior source in the Social Services Ministry. “They can’t promise that they won’t be attacked in their house, but the welfare services have considerable authority regarding custody the day after an attack.” An opinion written by the ministry that determines what constitutes the “good of the child,” at the court’s request, greatly affects the judge’s decision regarding the choice of guardian.

But even at this point, say the welfare authorities, their power is still limited. “If neither the police nor the court decides otherwise, the father has a right to receive and request a relationship,” says a ministry source. “We aren’t dragged into a place that chooses between good and evil; between someone whom we think committed murder and the victim. We ask what is good for the child. Sometimes it looks from the sidelines as though it wasn’t the right choice but the court accepted it.”

The pictures of Arab women murdered in recent years, during a demonstration in Lod.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Some social workers, however, prefer to speak more bluntly. “The murder of the mother paves the way for the father to take the children for himself, legally – even if according to all the assessments he himself is behind the murder,” says social worker Samah Salima, a veteran activist and founder of Na’am (an acronym for “Arab Women in the Center”). “For lack of choice, these children grow up in the shadow of the murder and with their mother’s murderer.”

In effect, she adds, “it forces the children to be in contact with violent and dangerous men whom the same justice system failed to convict.” This relationship has profound consequences for the children.

Prof. Asher Ben-Arieh of the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare at the Hebrew University says there is broad consensus that “the harm to children who have been exposed to domestic violence is similar to a situation in which the child him- or herself is abused, and sometimes even worse.”

Ben-Arieh is also director general of the Paul Baerwald School’s Haruv Institute, which deals with children who are victims of abuse and neglect. He says the father’s anger at the mother who was murdered is likely to be transferred to the children. These situations are particularly prominent, he says, “when the children act as a kind of memorial for the dead mother – sometimes only because of the family connection, and sometimes due to a physical resemblance.”

Despite the difficulty and trauma, many children still prefer to live with their father – the younger children, especially. Clinical psychologist Maison Fatahallah explains that they are still emotionally connected to their father, and that he exploits this.

She describes a case where a child agreed to move in with his father even though he and his siblings saw him abusing their mother. “He said he wanted a father, like all other children. The fathers know their children are broken and will agree to live with them,” she says.

The crime scene following the murder of Rabab Abu Siam last July in Lod.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Salima, whose job includes working with families after a murder and during the custody battle, believes the existing law must be changed. In her view, whenever a past history of violence against the partner emerges during the murder investigation, it should be decreed that the father is unable to create a safe atmosphere for his orphaned children.

“The investigation and the suspicion itself – even if it hasn’t been completely proven – should be a criterion brought before the judge in court,” she argues. “To grow up with the knowledge that the parent raising you is guilty of your mother’s death is a recipe for numerous developmental problems and psychological challenges, which will cause these children great distress.”

She adds another critical point: “The law must protect and preserve the visitation rights of the victims’ families – certainly regarding the relationship with the grandparents – and not treat the case like a mother’s death from an illness or accident,” she says.

Attorney Ayelet Razin Bet Or, who heads the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women, believes that the law must be changed. In her previous position as legal adviser at the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, she participated in discussions about the wording of the law. And the present version, she believes, is insufficient.

“If someone is suspected of such a serious act, it is doubtful he is fit to make decisions about the children,” she says. “In my opinion, the law should be amended and expanded.”

Fear is the decisive factor

In November 2020, Wafa Abahreh left the Sharia court in the Galilee town of Arabeh and got into her car. Shortly afterward, another car rammed into her, a man emerged with a knife and stabbed her to death. He stuck the knife – used for slaughtering sleep – into her torso 13 times, in front of passersby. The man is Rabia Kanaana, her former husband and the father of their five children. Now he is accused of her murder and additional crimes, including attacking their young daughter.

The warning signs were there leading up the murder. Kanaana had served a six-month prison term for threats and violence against Abahreh. Even after his release, he continued to threaten her due to her demands for full custody of the children. These threats were known to the welfare services and the police, and at one point she moved to a women’s shelter – but didn’t stay there for long.

In recordings subsequently revealed after the murder, she is heard telling one of the policemen that she felt her life was in danger. “Don’t tell me how to do my job,” he responded. The end is known.

A demonstration in the town of Taibeh following the murder of two Arab women by their partners, in 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In one sense, this case is actually not so typical. Here, the partner was also the one who apparently committed the murder. But it’s different in most cases of domestic murder in Arab society. According to data published last month by the Knesset Research and Information Center, only in a third of murders of Arab women since 2020 does the investigative file note a family connection to the murderer (compared to 93 percent in Jewish society).

The police say this is no coincidence: Usually in such cases, the person wanting to have a woman killed does not act alone. “They pay a mercenary and prepare an alibi for themselves,” explains a senior police officer. And the dispatcher is usually not just one person. Most times, there is another family member, aside from the father or the son or the husband, who has an interest in this murder.”

That’s why the police often initially arrest suspects with a clear motive – but also an alibi. Some are abroad at the time of the murder, others deliberately go to gas stations or other public places where they are seen – and the evidence tying them to the act is harder to obtain.

Along with the police, there is also the question of the responsibility of the Sharia courts where the custody hearings are held.

“The courts fill a judicial role,” says Sharia courts director Qadi Iyad Zahalka. “They rule on the disputes that come before them; they don’t bear responsibility for the chaos in Arab society.”

Zahalka is aware that many proceedings are accompanied by serious threats. “Sometimes, when we see there’s a fear of violence, we try by ourselves to mediate between the sides,” he says. “The qadi at the hearing appoints arbiters from the community to intervene and prevent violence.” He adds that he himself has often been threatened during cases, while two unidentified men have even fired at his home in an apparent effort to intimidate him.

But even a court ruling is not necessarily the end of the story, as in the case of Iman (not her real name).

After her sister was murdered – allegedly by members of her former husband’s family – the court granted custody to the family of the deceased mother. “After the ruling, they fired at our house,” Iman recounts. “We didn’t receive direct messages that it was his family, but we have no other dispute in our lives. We complained about it to the police, and they’re still investigating.”

Despite living in fear, Iman and her family refuse to relinquish her sister’s children. But there are others who do give in, who feel they have no other choice. The sister of Hanin (not her real name) was murdered about a decade ago. The immediate suspects were the divorced husband and his siblings, but the suspicions did not lead to a prosecution.

In some ways, says Hanin, her sister’s murder was merely the opening shot in the custody battle over the children.

“One day I arrived at my office and everything had been overturned. Another day, I saw that motorcyclists were following me home,” she says. “Another time, they called from an unidentified number. The voice on the other end of the line told me I was being followed and that they know where I go. ‘We’ll murder you the way we murdered your sister,’ they said. That night, I fled to the other side of the country.”

A demonstration decrying violence against women, in Tel Aviv two years ago.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Scared, Hanin’s family decided not to fight for custody through the Sharia court – and the children were transferred to the family of the former husband. “All their lives they were told that we gave them up and they turned into the black sheep of the family there,” she says. Secretly, she maintains contact with them. “Both I and they took a risk,” she admits. “My niece is already an adult, but the connection is still hush-hush. She lives with the feeling that if she does something wrong, her fate will be identical to that of her mother.”

In response to this story, the Israeli police said that they “make great efforts to solve all murder cases. However, when there are files with several avenues of investigation, in which there is not yet sufficient evidence to file an indictment – it’s impossible to adopt administrative steps to remove a child from their legal custody. Furthermore, we must stress that adopting such administrative actions is not in the power of the police.”

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