In the shade of the Palestinian Law, women in the Gaza strip are killed twice: Once by murdering them and a second time by citing inexistent evidence, allowing perpetrators to walk away with impunity.
In the late evening of January 19, 2019, F.M., a young woman, was shot in the head and killed. It was dark when people started to gather in the location where the gunshot had been heard. She lay there, in her niqab. Her father and her brother stood there. According to the accounts we collected in our investigation of the case, the brother was carrying a handgun.
F.M. was one of six women killed in the Gaza Strip in 2019. During the first half of 2020, almost as many women were killed, according to statements by Gaza’s Ministry of Interior. But the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counselling, a Jerusalem-based independent Palestinian non-profit, recorded 12 cases of unnatural deaths of women in Gaza for the same year, ranging from suicide to murder in mysterious circumstances.
F.M.’s father, standing by his daughter’s body, told the neighbours gathered around that her brother had killed her by mistake as he was cleaning his gun. This was the same statement of the police at al-Aqsa Hospital in the central Gaza Strip – but it was far from the reality on the ground.
Police investigations proved that the father’s claims were unfounded, based on crime scene investigation and evidence found by the Criminal Investigation Department. This prompted the victim’s brother to confess that his father had killed his sister, placed the gun in his hand and told everyone that he was the killer. Yet the father obtained a reduced sentence of five years in prison, counting the time he spent in custody as he was awaiting trial. He then lodged an appeal, which was approved by the Public Prosecution.
The father thought his daughter was not a virgin anymore and wanted to defend the family’s honour
Premeditated murder is punishable by execution, as stipulated in Article 215 of the Palestinian Code 74 of 1936. So why was the sentence reduced this time? Why did the Public Prosecution approve the appeal?
Upon new evidence and the confession of the brother, the victim’s father began looking for new reasons to be exonerated of his crime. In his confession statement, which we managed to secure a copy of, he claimed that he had killed his daughter to defend the family’s honour, despite the one-year gap between the time he claimed to have found out she was no longer a virgin and the day he murdered her.
In the investigation report, the culprit said, “I had suspicions that my daughter was secretly meeting with a young man under my roof. I took her to a private hospital to have her checked in November 2017. The doctor said she was not a virgin. I promised that I would not kill her, and I tried to correct her behaviour.”
The victim was killed, and forensic medicine confirmed that she was a virgin. With this, the argument of ‘defending the family’s honour’ was evidently refuted. But the other argument still holds true: the victim’s father wanted to “correct her bad behaviour” because she secretly owned a mobile phone, as her mother (M.J.), who divorced her husband years ago, tells us.
“I haven’t talked to my daughter since I left the house when she was still a child. Her father prevented her from talking to me. The first time I spoke to my daughter again was through a mobile phone that she hid from her father. F.M. was at the funeral of a relative and gave her number to her uncle’s wife so she could pass it to me. It was the first time I had heard her voice in a very long time.”
During their first phone call, F.M. complained to her mother about her father’s bad treatment. She told her that he used to suspect her every move and confiscated her mobile phone and beat her for having it.
“When she used to call me, her sister used to cover her and keep an eye out lest their father found out. A few days before she died, my daughter contacted me and told me she was going to her cousin’s wedding on Saturday 19 January, and that she needed new clothes. I promised that I would sneak some outfits to her and her sister. She also asked me to come see her, but I did not promise her that because I was afraid her father would find out,” the bereaved mother says as she wipes her tears.
“It was the biggest mistake of my life. I wish I had gone to see her. I never thought she would die in this ugly way. My poor child,” she says through her weeping.
At the infamous wedding, F.M. ran into her aunt (her mother’s sister) and spent time with her. Her stepmother mistook the aunt for F.M.’s mother. On their way back home, the stepmother told the father about the meeting between the two women. He was livid.
“When my daughter and her two brothers arrived at the house, her father shot her dead at the doorstep,” says the victim’s mother.
In the investigation report, the murderer – the father – said he killed his daughter to defend the family’s honour.
“This is completely untrue. Why did he kill her on that specific day? My daughter was killed on a wedding day! He is claiming that she was not a virgin anymore. He has nothing to prove his lies. The forensic report confirmed she was still a virgin. My daughter did not deserve this. She was wronged.”
Article 18 of the Palestinian penal code: A legal licence to kill women
In the same vein, S.H. killed his wife based on ‘defending his honour’. He requested that the Public Prosecution go through his dead wife’s phone to find any information confirming that she had brought dishonour to the family. Consequently, deliberate murder can be reduced to an honour crime.
We met with the family of the victim for two days. However, they have refused to let us publish the interview for fear of reprisal, as they have agreed with the family of the murderer to continue the legal and tribal procedures. However, we obtained the family’s permission to discuss the issue in its general context, based on what had been reported in the media.
The victim’s father said in a television interview that his daughter and her husband had a quarrel at midnight on 10 February, 2020. He was later shocked by a phone call from a relative, informing him that his daughter had been asphyxiated. He was requested to go to al-Shifa Hospital to collect the body.
The murderous husband is trying to benefit from Article 18 of the 1936 Penal Code, which stipulates that perpetrators of murder in the name of honour can obtain a reduced sentence in light of mitigating circumstances. This is the same article that F.M.’s father referred to, in order to obtain a reduced sentence.
In other words, according to this law, a killer can get a reduced sentence for a murder he committed if he was a witness to a crime. For instance, if a husband catches his wife in the act of committing adultery and kills her, the felony is reduced to a misdemeanour.
“The concept of self-defence, or killing to defend one’s honour or property, means that someone is trying to kill you and you kill them in self-defence. It is not right to use this article of the law to kill someone just because you heard he was trying to kill you or threatened to do so,” says Zainab al-Ghunaimi, Director of the Center for Women's Legal Research, Counseling and Protection (CWLRCP).
“As long as you did not see any person encroaching on your rights or safety, this is not an honour crime. It is unfortunate that the concept of honour crimes (in Article 18) is being used to justify the killing of women on the ground that they brought dishonour to a family,” she adds.
The social and juridical acceptance of beating women in order to correct their behaviour or even killing them is high
Killing on the grounds of defending honour entails that the assailant must be caught red-handed. This is not the case in the killings we have been investigating. Women are being killed based on honour crimes merely by being accused of being in contact with strangers, whether in real life or on social media, according to Ghunaimi: “The law does not target these crimes, because no-one was caught in the very act of wrongdoing.”
This leniency in applying the law, whereby women are killed for behaving in a way that is not approved of by the people around them, has allowed many killers to obtain reduced sentences for murder, based on Article 18.
In one of the cases we investigated, a father had beaten his daughter to death. According to the investigation report, he changed his statements, saying that she had been calling a young man. He proved his claims and obtained a reduced sentence, as he did not have any previous convictions. He said he had beaten her to correct her behaviour.
This murderer took advantage of the social acceptance of beating women to correct female behaviour. He was released based on tribal reconciliation a few months later.
“In my opinion and from a legal perspective, this is not considered an attack on ‘honour’,” Ghunaimi comments.
In December 2016, a man killed his half-sister after detaining her. Once again, the motive was “defending honour”. The young woman was locked up and battered, her hair was cut, and she was forced to confess to an extramarital affair.
During his trial, the brother relied on a piece of video footage from ten years before the murder. Filmed by the victim herself, it showed her with the man who later became her husband. Yet the judges considered the video to be evidence of the perpetrator’s claims.
The defendant claimed that his half-sister had continued to behave immorally, which prompted him to kill her, despite the lack of evidence of any recent ‘immoral act’ on the part of the victim. According to Imtiyaz Hassaballah, the lawyer for the victim’s family, the judges disregarded the fact that based on the law, this was premeditated murder.
The brother had kidnapped, tortured, and murdered his half-sister. Yet the judges did not take these facts into account. They based their decision to reduce the sentence against him on old video footage, according to Hassaballah. She was surprised that the judges sentenced the brother to only one year in prison, as per Article 18 of the 1936 Penal Code.
Official causes for the deaths of women in Gaza are “falling from a height” or “mysterious circumstances”
In 2020, as of the writing of this report, there have been 12 unnatural deaths of women in Gaza. The listed causes range from deliberate killing to falling from a height, suicide, stray bullets and mysterious circumstances, according to our investigation. The total number of women murdered in the Gaza Strip from 2016 through 2020 is 48, according to the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counselling.
It is not possible to find out the fate of all the killers of women in Gaza in 2020, due to the lack of information on the Supreme Judicial Council website and given the complicated process of sharing such information on the website. However, we learned from the families of the victims that some murderers obtained reduced sentences, some were not arrested, and others are still on trial.
As we were investigating the fate of women killers in Gaza, it became clear that many of the perpetrators had been released just months after committing the crime, as a result of a reduced sentence based on the legal amendment No.3 of 2009 in force in the Gaza Strip. This amendment was added to Article 18 of the law and stipulates that “the court may consider a pardon on the part of the guardian of the victim or blood money as a ground for reduced sentence”.
Some benefited from a lenient sentence in accordance with Article 18 after having accused the victim of immoral behaviour; others were not even imprisoned because the crimes were registered as suicide, manslaughter, or death as a result of a fall from a height.
During our investigation we learned that among the deaths of women were cases of suicide. It is noteworthy, however, that suicide affects women who have been abused and battered by their families.
From 2016 to 2018, 16 suicides were recorded in the Gaza Strip. Most of these cases were women who had been physically abused within their families. The suicides were carried out by hanging, using a head cover or a clothesline. According to our investigation, most suicides were an escape from domestic violence or social stigma, while some cases indicated a suspicion of murder.
“My daughter was killed, and the crime was covered up”
The case of young A.G. was recorded as a suicide before the Public Prosecution. The victim’s father, however, believes it was a murder.
He tells us: “On June 20, 2018, the police investigated M.N. regarding the death of his wife, my daughter, under unnatural circumstances. The case was registered as a suicide. My daughter was buried without any mourning reception. I refuse to accept that she killed herself. She was likely killed.”
The father, A.G., who boycotted the entire family because they accepted that his daughter had killed herself out of shame of being discovered by her husband and did not hold a mourning reception for her, had evidence to refute the story of her suicide.
He says there were a lot of contradictions in the story. He saw bruises on her body before the autopsy, despite the victim’s husband and his family claiming that they found her hanged from a fan in her bedroom with a head cover tied around her neck.
In the interrogation report that we obtained a copy of, the husband said that he had never quarrelled with his wife, a claim the father denies.
“Her husband had previously opened a gas tank with the intention of burning her because she asked him to get onions to prepare Friday lunch,” the father says. “My daughter’s in-laws had always called me to settle disputes between her and her husband. On some occasions, disputes were over a cup of tea and cleaning the yard.”
The day A.G. died, her father received a call from relatives informing him of her death. The following day, the doctor at the autopsy said she had committed suicide. The news was a terrible shock to her father, who was even more shocked when he learned of a major quarrel between his daughter and her husband on the eve of her death.
“They claim that my daughter confessed to calling someone else. When her husband found out, he brought his relative, who is an officer in the investigation department, to investigate her at home. This happened one day before she died. They say she was too ashamed and committed suicide the next day. The strange thing is that her in-laws did not phone me to tell me that my daughter did something wrong and committed suicide. I had to learn from strangers that she died.”
“My daughter was killed, and the crime was covered up. They say she killed herself, let them prove it. Let them give a shred of proof that my daughter wronged her husband, and I will be quiet,” he says furiously. “My daughter died, and my tongue was buried. She will not answer me if I ask her what happened to her. They are the ones who are alive, let them answer me.”
The father, who seems desperate to redeem his daughter’s reputation, demanded to listen to the audio recording said to be the reason for the suicide. “I asked the director of the investigations to listen to the recording, as I can recognise if it was indeed her voice. I also requested to see her signature on the confessions they claim she signed, because I doubt it would be hers.”
A.G.’s demands fell on deaf ears, with all evidence that could acquit his daughter remaining unavailable. He still insists that she was killed.
This lack of evidence is not an issue for this victim’s father alone, but also for lawyer Islah Hasniah in another case. For years, she has been searching for forensic evidence to prove that a woman was killed by burning.
“T.K. had a quarrel with her husband, which caused her to have a nervous breakdown and subsequently be admitted to the hospital. The doctor gave her a sedative. An hour later, she was found burned to death inside her bedroom, without any proof of a fire ever occurring in the room,” Hasniah says.
“The corpse was on the bed and the room was clean, without any sign of a fire on the walls. Everything indicates that the young woman was set ablaze in a place other than her bedroom. The case was temporarily closed, and the perpetrator was not revealed.”
Hasniah reopened the case by order of the Public Prosecutor, but officers in the district where the victims hail from said the file was closed. In 2018, she tried again and was told that the file could not be found.
“Even if the file was not kept, where are the correct investigation procedures that must be done? What about the forensic investigation and report? All these elements are missing from T.K.’s case.”
Zainab al-Ghunaimi, Director of the CWLRCP, says, “Sometimes the perpetrator takes advantage of the lack of sufficient legal adaptation of the case on the part of the Public Prosecution. Therefore, the victim’s rights are lost. In crimes that are not related to defending honour, the perpetrators are punished. For cases related to honour killing, the Public Prosecution adapts the case on that basis and the judge looks into it according to this information as well.”
Ghunaimi explains that in some cases, criminal evidence is concealed or destroyed when the crime occurs. In other cases, lawyers manage to convert murders into honour killings.
“In one of the cases we followed up on, the victim was suspected to have been in a relationship with a man. A member of the prosecution and investigators tended to point out that the victim deserved to be killed and that they would close the case. But on what grounds? The victim was not even killed on the grounds of honour!,” Ghunaimi says furiously.
As we were preparing this investigation, we tried to communicate with the Office of the Public Prosecutor in Gaza, Diaa al-Mahdoun, receiving no response to our written correspondence. We had to attend a private meeting between the Public Prosecutor and investigative journalists to be able to request in person an appointment for a video interview.
During the meeting, the Public Prosecutor requested us to contact the head of his media office, Tariq al-Af. Within a few days, the response was still a no – through a Facebook message, in which al-Af said that the subject of the investigation, i.e., the killing of women in Gaza, is not a public issue.
After completing this report, we requested that al-Af set up another appointment with the Public Prosecution. We did not receive any response.
All our questions on the Public Prosecution’s adaptation of the killing of women and claims of defending honour remain unanswered, even after contacting Maryam al-Barsh, head of the Palestinian police’s Family and Child Protection Department, who previously discovered the existence of a young woman’s murder 27 days after it took place.
Barsh says that one of the victim’s sisters reported her disappearance, which prompted the Family and Child Protection Department to look for her whereabouts and then confirm the crime. The Department then reported to the Investigations Department, which called the father in for investigation. He confessed to the murder.
“Some killers of women in Gaza claim they kill to defend the honour of the family, but in most cases, women are honourable and the killers are punished,” Barsh says. “We receive cases of violence against women, directly or indirectly. Some of the abuse cases are transferred from institutions and associations. We intervene to prevent the aggressor from keeping on assaulting the victim, by making them sign a pledge at the Department.”
The Family and Child Protection Department seeks to protect women who are subject to violence that poses a threat to their lives, by sending them to care centres or safe houses, until proper solutions have been found and reconciliation ensures they are not harmed.
Barsh attributes domestic violence and family disputes to the abuse of drugs on the part of the aggressors. She says society in Gaza is conservative, and crime is not a common occurrence. She adds that not all murders have motives, as in some cases people are killed by stray bullets.
The deaths of women in mysterious conditions in Gaza are ongoing. In every story of a new victim, there are details that people know nothing of except for what is said in the first hours following the crime.
Between the questions ‘Why was she killed?’ and ‘Did she deserve to die?’, the victims die twice, while the killers walk the streets with impunity thanks to a law that pulls their necks out of the gallows, and a society that accepts them again and sometimes hails them as heroes.
Every year, the number of missing women increases; some are murdered, some are said to have committed suicide, others die from a stray bullet or in mysterious circumstances. After the first news on the fate of the killer, the wave of public anger against them subsides. This continues in a vicious circle.
For the past ten years, women’s institutions in Palestine have demanded the enactment of a family protection law in the Palestinian Territories. However, this is strongly objected to by some lawyers and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who have signed a petition rejecting the law. There have also been demonstrations rejecting it by some communities in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
This opens the door to doubts about the seriousness of the denouncements of the killing of women on the ground of defending honour, and the rejection of violence against women.
The research for this article was supported by the Candid Foundation’s journalism grant.