The suspected “honor killing” of a 21-year-old Palestinian woman from a village outside of Bethlehem has sparked outrage across the West Bank, shining a light on gender-based violence in Palestine.
Hundreds of protesters marched through Bethlehem to Beit Sahour on Saturday, and on Monday another protest was held outside of the Prime Minister’s office in Ramallah, calling for justice for the young make-up artist, Israa Ghrayeb. Demonstrators called for accountability, chanting “We are all Israa,” and “stop killing women.”
Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced during a cabinet meeting on Monday, “A number of people have been arrested for interrogation,” but did not disclose further details.
Ghrayeb died on Thursday, August 22 at her home after she was discharged from the hospital where she was admitted for spinal injuries. Although the circumstances around her death are unclear, many speculate she was killed by male family members after she posted a video of herself on social media with a man she was soon to be engaged to.
According to different media reports, Israa was allegedly severely beaten and tortured in her family home. While attempting to escape her family’s violence, Israa fell or jumped from the second story of the family house, causing severe spinal injuries leading to hospitalization.
She was then reportedly assaulted by her family a second time while in the hospital. Audio of the alleged attack was recorded by a nurse and went viral. In the footage, a woman can be heard screaming along with a thumping or striking noise.
Doctors at the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation confirmed Israa was admitted for spinal treatment, however, medical staff refrained from commenting on the severity of her spinal injuries or the alleged assault.
Israa’s family has denied the accusations, claiming Israa died from a heart attack, and that the sounds of her screaming in the hospital were due to a psychotic episode.
The General Director of WCLAC Randa Siniora explained the difficulty in categorizing “femicides,” or death as gender-based violence, as many of the killings are still under investigation or were classified as a suicide.
“This year there are 18 cases of unknown reasons for death, suicidal cases and femicide, with 14 in the West Bank and eight in Gaza. Six are confirmed femicide in the West Bank, the others are under investigation,” Siniora told Mondoweiss.
International organizations and thousands across social media have also called for the Palestinian Authority to increase awareness around gender-based violence and the laws relating to femicide. In a Facebook post, Shtayyeh stated, “We must strengthen the system of legislation protecting Palestinian women.”
Several Palestinian laws grant leniency to men convicted of killing female relatives, sometimes referred to as an honor killing. Many are inherited Jordanian regulations that pre-date the 1967 war when Israel took over the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s.
In the past perpetrators of honor killings received reduced sentences under Article 98 and 99 of the Palestinian Penal code, which “grants judges the ability to dramatically reduce sentences,” if “extenuating circumstances” could be proven. In 2014 a UN human rights report written by Palestinian judge Ahmad al-Ashqar, said that “legislation in place contributes, to a large extent, to building a social awareness that killing under the pretext of honour is acceptable.”
A series of legal reforms beginning in 2011 upended sentencing protections for men convicted of killing women. Most recently in March 2018 a presidential decree officially nullified Article 98 and 99. Despite this, WCLAC Director Randa Siniora, explained that change only benefits women who were victims of femicide after the implementation of the amendment.
“Any crimes committed before that, would be according to the provision before the amendment,” Siniora said, and therefore could use Article 98 and 99 to achieve a lesser sentence. “In general, we rarely see the impact of the law on cases from these amendments.”
“We are fed up with the slight amendments here and there. These amendments are not reflective of the actual need for the protection and access to justice for women who are victims of gender-based violence and femicides,” Siniora added.
Siniora also has called on a comprehensive investigation be made in the case of Israa Ghrayeb, not only against the immediate perpetrator but anyone “found cooperating should be persecuted.”
“I mean in the hospital, we have to know exactly what happened, exactly at the medical level. There was a lot of suspicion of why her spinal cord was broken and how she was injured,” Siniora said.
During the Bethlehem protest, activist and founder of feminist clothing store Baby Fist, Palestinian-American Yasmeen Mjalli, 23, from North Carolina spoke with Mondoweiss about how Israa’s death represents a worldwide phenomenon of gender-based violence, not just an “Arab problem.”
“This is happening all over the world,” she said. Mjalli mentioned Italy–where until 1981 men received a reduced sentence of three to seven years for murdering a spouse or daughter under a law that invoked the word “honor”–“but we always seem to make it an Arab issue.”
Mjalli criticized an impulse in Palestinian society to stave off progress on legal protections for women and girls.
“Often what we hear is that we can’t work on women’s rights issues until the occupation is over, otherwise you’re criticized of distracting from the occupation,” Mjalli stated. “But you can’t have national liberation without social liberation. They have to work together or we’re never going to achieve either.”
Protesters in front of the P.M.’s office in Ramallah demanding justice for #IsraaGhrayeb & protection for women from violence & discrimination. “Honor” crimes are dishonourable premeditated murder. #كلنا_اسراء_غريب pic.twitter.com/Q2IvvF9SJ4
— Hanan Ashrawi (@DrHananAshrawi) September 2, 2019
Head of the PLO General Assembly for Palestinian Women, Ahlam Wahsh, spoke to Mondoweiss about the repercussions Israa’s death has had on the dialogue surrounding women’s rights in Palestine.
“Even though this has been a huge tragedy and shock for everyone, this has encouraged so many people to raise their voices because hundreds of incidents such as this one have happened and nobody dares to speak this aloud,” Wahsh said.
“We have spoken with the national prosecutor and we have spoken with the head of the municipality. We have also sent many messages to the president himself, and to the Prime Minister specifically about this incident,” Wahsh said.
“Today for Israa,” Wahsh declared, “We want to announce to everyone that it’s time to finish this. It’s time for the bloodshed to stop.”