Social Media is now in an uproar over the mysterious death of young Palestinian woman Esra Ghareeb, with speculations that she may have died as a result of an assault by family members.
Esra, a resident of Beit Sahour, died in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on August 22. Palestinian police spokesman, Louay Arzaiqat, said in a statement published on the same day that the police and the public prosecutor have started an investigation into the circumstances of the death of the 21-year-old young woman who was dead on arrival at Beit Jala Governmental Hospital. Adding that she was transferred to the Medical Institute of the ministry of justice for an autopsy in order to determine the cause of death.
Eight days after her death, one of her friends published details of Esra’s life, including pictures and videos in which she asks for help, and talks about the abuse she was subjected to after posting a photo on her Instagram account, of herself with a young man who proposed to her.
The case received considerable attention locally and in the Arab world, which prompted the Public Prosecutor to issue another statement on August 30, indicating that the office was still investigating the case, and was in the process of reviewing witness statements and gathering evidence, pointing out that the forensic report had not yet been issued.
The delay in issuing the results to the public fueled social media speculations further, with some questioning whether it could be a deliberate cover-up by the prosecutor’s office. Raseef22 spoke to a Palestinian police source who denied this claim, and insisted that the delay in the autopsy results was not unusual, and had nothing to do with the nature of the case.
The source said that at this point, it was not possible to confirm the veracity of the videos circulating online; adding that Esra’s family reported that she was “mentally challenged.”
Not the First case
Esra’s death, as a case of family assault, recalls a long history of similar cases in Palestine. Most notably, the case of SH.H, a 26-year-old, from the town of al-Nasr in Rafah, who was killed at dawn on June 17, 2019. Another incident occurred in the Gaza Strip in Khan Yunis, where S.A.E was killed on July 8, 2017—the two brothers of the victim were arrested and taken in for questioning about the circumstances and motives of the crime.
Feminist activist Shirin Khalifeh told Raseef22 that the Palestinian law still fails at protecting women and their rights. And with no clear legal deterrent, crimes against women continue. While murders that are characterized as “honor killings” used to occur more frequently in rural rather than urban areas, because the former are largely more conservative and patriarchal, now “location is irrelevant,” says Khalifeh.
Khalifeh sheds light on yet another urgent aspect of this phenomenon, namely that many women who are subjected to violence are often unaware of their rights. They choose to remain silent, "because in short, they have no idea how to talk about the injustice and oppression they are enduring,” as she puts it.
In the West Bank, many women have experienced violence under the pretext of "defending honor," including the Sabreen Ayyad, 23, a native of Ramallah. Sabreen was stabbed by her ex-husband inside the headquarters of the Sharia Court in Birzeit in May 2014, after a dispute between the two.
Researcher Nour Sawirka says “violence against women is no longer acceptable.” Many are complicit in perpetuating the violence, by obscuring the details of such cases under the pretext of preserving the reputation of persons and families in which these crimes take place.
Sawirka asserts to Raseef22 that most of the cases in which women were murdered, are presented under the excuse of “honour”, which is often used as a justification to mask the real motives behind the crimes. "No one has the right to end the life of another human being," Sawirka says, noting that Palestine and especially the West Bank has witnessed murder cases, which deployed various methods, excuses and tools, but all all shared, "subjugating women to torture and extreme cruelty."
She explained, lastly, that changing this reality requires raising awareness at the level of the community, as well as the legislative and judicial bodies. Sawirka feels that social media can play a role in supporting these causes, and can influence decision-makers, giving Esra’s case as an example.
Violence against women should end, and the refusal to label killings of women as "honor crimes," is an important step towards ending this grave injustice
Many Palestinian women who are subjected to violence are often unaware of their rights; it is therefore urgent to have support groups, campaigns and initiatives that raise awareness about women's legal rights, and to expose the pretexts under which violence is committed against women
Women's Protection Laws
In 2014, the Palestinian authority began amending Palestinian laws on murders of women, in line with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
The article in the penal code which gave lenient penalties to violence against women was repealed, which meant that judges can no longer use “protecting honor” as a mitigating factor in cases of women victims. With this legal deterrent in place, many hoped to see a decline in female homicide, but it was not the case, as The Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, in 2016, identified 23 killings of women in mysterious circumstances, including 11 in the Gaza Strip and 12 in the West Bank.
In 2017, there were 27 cases, including 10 in the West Bank and 17 in the Gaza Strip.
The Experience in the Occupied Territories
Although the Palestinians in the occupied territories live under Israeli rule, there are many cases of killings of women for multiple motives, most important of which is “honor.”
The Women Against Violence Association reported that the number of murders committed against women within the 1948 territories was around 200 between 1986 and 2018, including 16 in 2016 alone.
The director of the Women Against Violence Association, Naela Awwad found that the nature of Israeli rule in the Arab areas indirectly encourages the spread of these crimes. As for the Israeli police dealing with many of these cases, neglect and discrimination can be detected, as she explained in an earlier interview, adding that the Israeli authorities and human rights and community organizations do not contribute to providing guidance and care for Palestinian women.
She noted that in the past years, the Occupied Territories have witnessed local campaigns carried out by Arab and international organizations to raise awareness of women's rights, as well as a number of community alliances to confront violence against women.
One of the most infamous murders in the occupied territories was the case of 34-year-old Amna Yassin, who was killed by her husband in August 2015 under the pretext of “honor”. In the same year, another woman from the Galilee was shot and severely injured by her family for similar reasons.
In response, in the same year, dozens of women staged several demonstrations under the slogan "We Are Not Safe", demanding the intervention of the Israeli police.
Challenges in the Camps
Palestinian women living in the Palestinian camps in the diaspora have not been spared this type of violence.
In Syria, the Working Group for Syrian Palestinians documented that until the end of 2018, more than 35 women were killed by torture in regime prisons; and listed more than 100 cases of forced disappearance of women since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. Other human rights groups have documented dozens of rape cases of Palestinian women inside the camps.
In Jordanian camps, Palestinian women live in close proximity to Jordanian society, where violence against women is high in remote areas. Jordan's Ministry of Social Development said it received more than 5,000 cases and complaints from women in 2018.
Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have witnessed hundreds of cases of violence against women over the past years and women have suffered many difficulties and life challenges, according to a study published in the Palestinian state news agency "Wafa," entitled "Palestinian women in Diaspora."
Amal Jamal, a 43-year-old activist from Al-Bass camp in southern Lebanon, said that the situation of women inside the camps is not very different from that of women in the Palestinian territories because the cultural attitudes are similar towards women’s rights. Women who have integrated into the Lebanese society, she added in a statement to Raseef22, were more successful in securing protection against violence, since Lebanon has more active human and civil rights organization, that work for the protection of women.