The death of a young Palestinian woman in the West Bank has sparked widespread outrage across the Middle East amid accusations that it is nothing but another case of so-called honor killing.
The suspicious circumstances of 21-year-old Israa Ghareeb’s death in Bethlehem have also drawn attention to a practice increasingly seen as a stain on the conscience of Middle East societies.
The Ghareeb family rejected the accusations. However, social media posts by Israa’s friends hinted at a connection between her death and a meeting she had with her fiance in the presence of a chaperone.
Those posts said a video of the meeting had been posted on a social-media platform and forwarded by a relative to the male members of her family. According to the posts, the clip angered the father and brothers, who felt the scenes of Israa with her fiance before the official wedding had taken place dishonored the family.
Subsequently, Israa was physically assaulted in the Ghareeb family home, the posts said. They added that due to the severe spinal injuries she sustained she had to be admitted to the Arab Society Hospital in Bethlehem.
From the hospital, Israa posted a selfie showing her bruised body on her Instagram account, with the message: “I am better now. Alhamdulillah.”
Later, according to the BBC, an audio recording of a young woman being violently tortured went viral on social media, although it could not be independently confirmed whether the voice was that of Israa.
Soon afterwards, #WeAreAllIsraa began to trend on Arabic Twitter, with more than 50,000 tweets displaying the hashtag.
While the precise circumstances of Israa’s death remain unclear, social media posts claim she died in her home just days after allegedly being assaulted in hospital in what amounted to a case of honor killing.
Despite the adoption of tough laws, awareness campaigns and global opprobrium, suspected honor killings — crimes committed against women who are seen as having transgressed social codes of honor — occur in Palestinian as well as the wider Arab society with tragic regularity.
If Israa’s death is confirmed as an honor killing, it would be the 19th case in Palestine in 2019, according to Palestinian NGOs Against Domestic Violence Against Women. Palestinian police data for 2018 show honor killings accounting for 12 percent of total homicide cases.
In the age of social media and gender equality honor killing, once hidden behind a curtain of silence, is generating condemnation of its perpetrators, public support for its victims and pledges to stamp it out.
Even so, honor killings are a major problem in several Middle East and North African countries.
Many of these crimes are believed to go unreported as they are committed by a close relative of the victim, and only a few are made public. Though several countries have taken legislative action to end the practice, more remains to be done in societies where numerically significant minorities continue to justify violence against women.
Women’s rights activists in the region say legal loopholes that are still available for those who commit honor crimes are perpetuating the practice.
Nahed Abu Tuaima, coordinator of the gender studies program at Birzeit University in the West Bank, says there is no denying the persistence of violence against women within Palestinian families.
“This violence is mainly caused by the lack of strict laws in Palestine, and the fact that Palestinian law allows a reduction in the punishment for those who kill women if the crime falls within so-called honor killing,” she said.
She noted that the public prosecution did not take action on Israa’s case until it became a public issue, especially on social media.
“The health sector did not handle the Israa case properly, and the police were not informed that there was an attack against her,” she said.
Abu Tuaima says the legal environment is outdated and is not suitable for protecting women in Palestine. “There is interest from the Palestinian government in unimportant laws but laws that protect women are not amended,” she said.
At the same time, Palestinian feminist institutions are weak and incapable of producing an effective framework for change. “They always use the same tools and do not seek new tools to pressure decision makers,” Abu Tuaima said.
For instance, she said, “we are negotiating with the government to pass a law limiting early marriage, but we are unable to get it implemented.”
In 2014 a legal consultant for the Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq reckoned that 90 percent of such crimes were committed for reasons other than “dishonoring” the family.
The knowledge that courts are more lenient when sexual misconduct is cited as a motive often result in an atmosphere of sympathy for the assailant and his family, leading to a lighter verdict.