Opinion

Palestinians Outraged Over Suspicious Death of Young West Bank Woman

Many took to social media to openly blame Israa Gharib's relatives for her death, signalling huge changes in Palestinian society

Israa Gharib, who died under 'suspicious circumstances' in Bethlehem, August 2019.

She worked as a cosmetician and was studying English at Bethlehem University. On August 22, at the age of 21, she died "under suspicious circumstances." The passing of Israa Gharib, a resident of Beit Sahour, has generated a flurry of angry posts on Palestinian social media, many blaming her death squarely on her family. People are so enraged that the Bethlehem district prosecutor issued an appeal to the public on Friday, asking not to publicize any details or names that could harm the investigation, the presumption of innocence, or the honor of the deceased and her family.

On August 8, Gharib was brought to a hospital in Bethlehem, and from there she was transferred to another one. She fell in the yard, her family claims. They said that “she fractured her spine,” that they thought she would need surgery, but that it was then decided it would be unnecessary due to her young age. She returned home, and there “died of a heart attack” according to one explanation by the family, which was quoted in the media, and a “stroke” according to another.

The autopsy will supposedly clarify the cause of her death. She suffered from mental health problems, said her family, rejecting any criminal implications.

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After Gharib’s death, Instagram stories she had posted from the hospital went public. “I’m strong and have a will, and if I didn’t have the will, I would have died already yesterday. Therefore, don’t send me [messages] ‘be strong.’ I’m strong [three hearts] and God’s mercy and the goodness of his emissary [will punish] anyone who hurt me and anyone who judged me … Wish me a successful operation,” she wrote.

Appended to her words, a photograph of an outstretched arm pierced with an IV, and the following promise: “I’m sorry about what I’m about to say. But I must cancel all my appointments for the months of August and September because my health situation does not allow me to work … I’m suffering from a fracture in my spine and today they will operate on me, and if the operation succeeds with God’s help I’ll let you know, and if not I will cancel everything.”

Later, a short video from a hospital room also emerged on social media, with, in the background, a long and bitter scream attributed to Gharib. One of the deceased's friends wrote that in the two to three weeks before the “fall,” a young man had proposed to Gharib, and that, with her family’s knowledge, she went on a date in a public place, accompanied by her sister.

Gharib posted a photo of the date on Instagram, which allegedly shocked some family members, upset that the family honor had been violated. Online, many openly blame them for her death. Several photos of Gharib's relatives, including one woman, appeared on social media, accusing them of being “criminals.” On one of them, the word “disgrace” was added.

Khawla Al-Azraq, director of the psychological and social counseling center for women in Bethlehem, says that according to available information, “Israa did not suffer from psychological disorders. She worked in a well-known beauty salon in her area and she was talented at her work.” Al-Azraq also said that in many similar cases the families find some excuse in order to cover up violence against women.

In a interview given to the press on behalf of the family, Gharib's brother-in-law, said that lawsuits for libel had already been filed against those websites that posted incorrect information. Demands had been made that the international companies behind the sites close them, he said. According to him, Gharib began to scream when she woke up in hospital, because she was afraid of the injections and the treatments, and claimed that people had beaten her.

A jinn (a demon) entered her, he said, claiming that “the Koranic treatment department in Bethlehem [which apparently “exorcises” jinns by reading verses of the Koran] had confirmed to the prosecutor that she had been possessed.” Those websites, he said, serve “foreign objectives,” parroting people, mainly politicians, who want to pin the blame for something on “Israel,” or “the United States," or “Iran.”

The Palestinian Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs confirmed there was no such thing as “the department of Koranic treatment.”

Meanwhile, the agitation on social media continues, which, if anything, emphasizes the great change that has taken place in recent years in public attitudes towards the deaths of women "under suspicious circumstances.” Many are not afraid to immediately and loudly suspect another case of domestic violence, another incidence of neglect by the authorities.

The path to change was paved by decades of information gathering and protests by Palestinian women’s organizations, by consciousness-raising activities, and workshops conducted for law enforcement groups. Following in their footsteps, the press started to publish hints, details and questions, while social media – ever more daring – sees people talking openly: “Instead of the police threatening al-Qaws [an organization working for LGBTQ rights], they should learn to protect women,” several posts read, garnering likes.

In 2016, 23 Palestinian women died under suspicious circumstances – 11 in the Gaza Strip and 12 in the West Bank [excluding Jerusalem]. In 2017 there were 29 cases, 16 in the Gaza Strip and the rest in the West Bank, and in 2018 there were 20 deaths of women – 11 in the West Bank and nine in the Gaza Strip – in which relatives are suspected of involvement in their murder.