Dua’a Abu Sharkh had been looking forward to September 23, 2016, for months. After an ugly separation from her husband, Abu Sharkh had lost custody of her four children, aged 5 to 12, and hadn’t seen them in almost a year, although her husband lives in the same city in Lod.
“It was close to her birthday, so she wanted to celebrate her birthday with the children,” said Abu Sharkh’s father, Amad Abu Suwhat. “It was like an Eid for her, like a feast day.” She had three daughters and a son with her husband, though the marriage has been rocky from the start, and there was some animosity with the sons from his first wife.
“Before [her ex-husband] sent the kids to her, they agreed she’d come back exactly at 8:30 p.m.,” said Abu Suwhat. At exactly 8:30 p.m., Abu Sharkh returned with the kids to the predetermined drop-off point. “She was getting the kids out of the car, hugging them, giving them gifts and pocket money, when a masked man appeared behind them. He pushed the girls on the ground, he had the gun in his hands, and her last words were, ‘Don’t shoot me! Don’t shoot me!’ He put the gun next to her head. It only took one bullet.”
Five-year-old Hafa, the youngest daughter, didn’t understand what had happened. She immediately started trying to pick up the toys that had scattered around her mother’s body, said Abu Suwhat.
Abu Suwhat said the murder followed years of serious physical threats from the husband and his two sons by his first wife, which prompted Abu Sharkh to go to the police and file a formal complaint.
Just two weeks after Abu Sharkh’s death, her mother and two sisters pleaded with Knesset members at an emergency session to indict Abu Sharkh’s killers and to address the widespread violence in their town.
“We feel so threatened, like the murderer has killed all of us,” said Abu Sharkh’s sister, who added the family now is afraid to leave the house after dark. “I am a strong woman, but lately I am so scared that someone is following me.”
Abu Sharkh’s story is not unique. Since 2010, 15 Arab women have been murdered in Ramle and Lod, according to Joint (Arab) List MK Aida Touma-Sliman, who also heads the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality.
“We refuse to continue counting bodies,” she said at an emergency Knesset session on October 6, urging the State Comptroller to open an inquiry into the personal safety of women in Ramle and Lod.
The widespread violence against women centered in the Lod/Ramle area is partly rooted in Israel’s dismissal of the violence as an “Arab problem,” said Touma-Sliman and other Arab MKs.
Calling murder an ‘honor’
“What made us really angry is how police deal with gender crimes [in the Arab sector] and how the Israeli media are talking about it,” Samah Samaile, the founder of the Na’am Women’s Center in Lod, said after the Knesset session. “They say it’s ‘honor crimes,’ that ‘this is Arab men doing what they’re taught to do.’ It’s not about the honor of anyone, it’s about men who want to control a women’s life.”
“Honor killings” is a term that refers to the murder of a mother, sister or daughter for suspected sexual impropriety, ranging from infidelity to flirtatiousness to having been the victim of rape.
But Samaile said that most of the killings are not about a woman’s so-called sexual purity, but are related to the same kind of crimes that cause violence in any major city — drugs, money, intimidation, being a witness to another crime, or possessing sensitive information. Additionally, Lod has a large organized crime presence, bringing an additional host of issues and the possibility of hiring hit men.
“When the media covers these murders, the first thing they say is it’s an honor killing, that’s the stereotype,” said Dr Raghda Alnabilsy, who did her PhD at Hebrew University focusing on violence against women in the Israeli Arab sector. “But if it’s a Jewish woman, or a Russian women, you’ll see different motives given, maybe she was having an affair, or she was abused by the husband. This is how they look at Arab women: this is your own case, and it’s not the responsibility of the state to solve it and look for the root problems.”
When Israeli politicians and the media dismiss these murders as “honor killings,” without looking for the true motive, they allow crime to go unchecked and foster a situation where police have less motivation work on identifying the issues behind each specific murder.
In 2010, MK Ahmad Tibi, now of the Joint List, proposed a law banning the use of the term “honor killing.”
“A man who murders a woman has no honor,” he told the Knesset, according to Haaretz. “Therefore it is inappropriate to describe it in positive terms. It is enough to say that a woman was murdered because that in itself is terrible, and sometimes the [police] say it was an honor killing, as happened in Lod less than a year ago, and it turns out not to have been and it damages [the dead woman’s] reputation, and the reputation of her daughter and family for generations to come.”
Tibi’s proposed law, which failed to reach a vote, would have prohibited the police, prosecutors and the media from describing any alleged murder as an honor killing. It would also have prohibited the use of the phrase “for romantic motives,” a Hebrew variation of the English “crime of passion.” Violators would have been fined and required to apologize publicly. In addition, the family of the victim would have been eligible to sue the offender for up to NIS 50,000 (about $13,200).
In 2012, police shifted their terminology in their internal statistics from “honor killing” to “other familial reasons,” though the term “honor killing” is still widely used in the media.
How to halt the wave of murders
There are plenty of concrete changes that can be made, activists say, to stop the widespread violence against women that can end in murder. Most of them come down to resources: more Arab social workers, more Arab community centers, more Arab police, more Arab welfare services. According to Samaile, Arab women are the victims of more than 50 percent of gender crimes, although Arabs are just 20% of the population in Israel. Ensuring more widespread activist to culturally appropriate social services means that women can seek assistance before the situation escalates to murder.
Arab women are the victims of more than 50% of gender crimes, although Arabs are just 20% of the population in Israel.
“When you’re a minority you don’t want to go tell ‘the other’ your problems, this extends to social workers and psychologists,” said Alnabilsy, who now lectures on gender violence at Sapir and Rupin Academic Colleges. “In their mind, these institutions represent the state that discriminates against them. Women have in their minds that if they go to this place for help, we won’t get the equal rights, they look at us as if we’re not equal, as if we’re undeveloped.”
Alnabilsy said the Israeli social welfare bureaucracy, which operates in Hebrew, a language they don’t understand, also has policies that are not culturally appropriate for Arab women.
For Israeli women, the emphasis is often on immediately placing the women in a shelter so they are out of harm’s way, and then working on the next stage of problems – finances, child custody, ties with her family. But the shelter should be the absolute last-ditch option for Arab women, because it is less culturally acceptable to leave home and live without family or a husband in a strange place, Alnabilsy explained.
Abu Suwhat said that Abu Sharkh was offered a place in a shelter two years ago. “We refused,” he said. “We know the person threatening my daughter is going free, so why should she be in a prison? She wanted to live free, although they call it a shelter, for us it’s a prison.”
Alnabilsy said that the social welfare system needs a complete overhaul to become culturally sensitive to Arab women, because even when Arab social workers are hired, they are still bound by the Israeli institutional policies.
Decreasing poverty is another essential aspect of fighting the rash of murders.
“After six decades of discrimination and neglect, Lod became one of the most dangerous places in Israel, and Ramle/Lod has the highest crime rate,” said Samaile.
What does the victim need?
When authorities or organizations try to assist Arab women who are victims of domestic abuse, no one ever asks the women what she wants, Samaile said. This extends to Jewish Israeli policemen, even those who are trying to act with good intentions. “The police think, when an abused woman flees, ‘I’ll take her back to her family, otherwise she’ll be in danger,’” said Samaile.
“There was a case where a woman who was severely beaten, with bleeding wounds, managed to get a taxi and flee to the police at 2 a.m.. And the police sent her back home. I said to them, how could you do this? She did this dramatic move, to come to your office in the middle of the night, and the police officer sent her back? You’re just as bad as the abuser!”
Ramle and Lod is an especially dangerous situation because the cities also have a large organized crime presence. This means that the principal suspects, who are often family members, can hire others to carry out the murder while they are someplace else with an airtight alibi.
In Abu Sharkh’s case, her husband was up north with his first wife, though he was soon arrested and is now in jail, Abu Suwhat said. Police arrested four people in connection with Abu Sharkh’s murder, three are relatives and all are residents of Lod.
Sometimes the girls and women are killed because they accidentally came across sensitive information or have refused to cooperate with drug deals. When they are killed, someone plants a rumor that it was an honor killing, which distracts the police from other possible crimes stemming from the murder, Samaile explained.
Chief Investigative Officer Dudu Zamir, who attended the special Knesset session as a representative of the police on October 6, said that the police were “sparing no manpower to solve the crimes.” “We can know who carried out the offense, who had motive and intent, but the gap between this intelligence information and gathering a solid foundation of evidence that would lead to an indictment in a murder case is a very big gap,” he said at the session. Zamir said it was difficult to encourage women to testify against their abusers, before the abuse progresses to murder, because of the short prison sentences the men often receive. “You cannot convince a woman to testify if she knows in seven years he will come looking for her,” he said.
Still, Zamir denied the allegation by many Arab MKs that police were not following through to arrest the men. He said that over the past year, the police received 50 complaints of family violence in Lod and indicted suspects in 40 of the cases.
A gradual change
But Samaile also sees how things are beginning to shift. She started Na’am in 2009, after working as a community center organizer in Lod. Na’am provides advice, legal assistance, and general support to women on a variety of issues. The volunteer organization subsists on donations from the New Israel Fund, the Dafna Fund, and the EU and US embassy, both of which support specific programs.
“After each crime, we organize a protest against the police,” to encourage them to investigate, rather than call it an honor killing, she said. “[The protests] started with just five people, but last Friday [after Abu Sharkh’s murder] there were hundreds of people.”
She also noted that as Israeli Arab women are pursuing more educational opportunities, they are building careers for themselves, working outside the home. This has led to a small but steady rise in the number of divorces, a previously taboo option, which Samaile attributes to more women leaving abusive situations.
Samaile added that as she has made more connections among feminist activists, she sees some important parallels with other groups of women who are struggling against patriarchal society, including Haredi women who are victims of domestic violence. She believes both groups can learn from each other.
“One of the successful approaches of Na’am is working in the community, step by step,” she said. “Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t.”
“We are really expecting, through the Knesset, that they can take more care of the Arab sector and crime in the Arab sector, to treat us the saw way they treat the Jews.”
However, for every step they make towards women’s empowerment, there are also obstacles. Polygamy, among Israeli Arabs as well as Bedouins, is on the rise. At least a third of Bedouin women are part of polygamous families, and in unrecognized Bedouin villages this figure can reach up to 50%. Outside of the Bedouin sector, more Israeli Arabs are adopting the custom as a way to gain prestige in their communities.
Abu Suwhat, who is not Bedouin, said it was his daughter’s own decision to get married and become a second wife, and the family respected her decision. Women in polygamous situations are especially vulnerable to abuse because they do not have legal rights.
Abu Suwhat spoke for many Arabs in Lod, who feel abandoned by the police. “I am calling on the Israeli security forces, if they really are interested, they can indict [the murder],” said Abu Suwhat. “They can do everything to find killers. If the police wanted to do more, they could.”
“We are really expecting, through the Knesset, that they can take more care of the Arab sector and crime in the Arab sector, to treat us the same way they treat the Jews,” said Suwhat. “If I throw a stone at my neighbor, within an hour they’ll come and take you away. Israeli intelligence is really smart and they know how to get the good results. It doesn’t make sense that Israel couldn’t find a single criminal, that we are ignored by the state.”
Simona Weinglass contributed to this report