“No to violence against women!” Palestinian women and men of all ages shouted, marching from Bethlehem’s manger square down to Beit Sahour.
“From Beit Sahour to the government leaders, we need laws to protect women!”
Saturday afternoon, 31 August, a group of almost 100 people gathered in the middle of the Bethlehem town of Beit Sahour to demand justice for 21-year-old Israa Al-Gharib, a prominent make-up artist and Beit Sahour local who was allegedly murdered by her family as a form of honour killing.
Though details of the incident are not yet confirmed, it is now apparent that Al-Gharib died on Thursday 22 August at her home after she was discharged from the hospital where she was admitted for spinal injuries, of which she acquired from allegedly jumping or falling from her two story home escaping beatings from her family. The circumstances around her death are still unclear, but 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, though her family claims she was either possessed and/or died of a heart attack.
The news spread across social media – including a viral video containing her torturous screams from her hospital room and hashtags stating “We are Israa” – public outcry against honour killings ensued. This opened up a larger discussion over the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) outdated legal system in terms of gender-based violence.
“We are here protesting, calling for the end of violence against women,” Lucy Talgieh, a member of the women’s department in the Palestinian Center for Conflict Resolution, told MEMO at Saturday’s protest. “We are sending our message to our President that we need a law to be implemented to stop the killing and domestic violence in Palestine.”
An outdated, dysfunctional system
The main issue at hand is a penal code adopted from the Jordanian legal system when it controlled the now-Israeli occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem before the 1967 war. Article 99 of said penal code, “grants judges the ability to dramatically reduce sentences,” when “extenuating circumstances” are present.
According to a 2014 UN human rights report written by Palestinian judge Ahmad Al-Ashqar, “Legislation in place contributes, to a large extent, to building a social awareness that killing under the pretext of honour is acceptable.”“Since 100 years there is nothing really changing in laws,” Amira Khader, lawyer and co-manager of the feminist store BabyFist in Ramallah, explained. She noted that Palestine has undergone occupation from the Ottoman Empire, the British, and the Israelis consecutively, leaving little opportunity for the development of its own legal system.
And while under occupation, Khader added, the political system is not stable. “It’s really difficult to change anything while the Israelis control everything single detail about your life.”
“And now the [Palestinian] parliament hasn’t been working since 2000 and the intifada,” she continued. “There hasn’t been any real discussion or any real voting since 2006,” when the PA split between the political parties Hamas, controlling Gaza, and Fatah, controlling the West Bank.
Without a functioning parliament, no article can be changed without a signature from the President Mahmoud Abbas. Various women’s rights groups have given a petition with nearly 12,000 signatures to the president himself years ago to change Article 99, but he has yet to sign it into action.
According to Khader, “if he is going to sign it, then he has to face the patriarchal society…and this isn’t something he wants to do.”
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 amended Article 98 and 99, though they do not afford any legal protections for cases prior to 2018. Protests have continued since Israa’s killing demanding legal justice that moves past amendments. The Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling spearheaded a family protection bill back in 2004 that would directly afford greater protection against gender-based violence, but President Abbas has not placed it on his agenda to this day.
‘Enough with the silence, its not benefiting anyone’
While calling for structural change to the government, protesters on Saturday were also demanding immediate justice for Israa Al-Gharib with the understanding that it would affect future violence toward women.
“In 2019, until now, 14 women were killed in the West Bank and four in Gaza,” by honour killings, Lucy Talgieh explained. “Some [cases] are in the court, but no one has been sentenced. And in most of the cases, they will be closed.”
“They must continue,” 19-year-old protester Rima Nael, from Hebron, explained as her reason for being out in Bethlehem on Saturday. “The police should not close this case…they should find the criminals and punish them so other men don’t do the same thing,” she told MEMO emphatically.
Ahlam Wahsh, 57, head of the PLO’s General Assembly of Palestinian Women, spoke to MEMO at the protest, explaining that though a sense of tragedy was still present, there is a bright side: “Hundreds of incidents such as this one has happened and no one actually dared to speak about it this loud.”
Al-Gharib’s death was in many ways the last straw. “Enough with the silence,” said Wahsh, “its not benefiting anyone.”
Justice is not mutually exclusive
The protest was created and led by 19-year-old Bethlehem native, Manar Raje, via Facebook event page. Her primary motivation was her stance against all forms of violence, especially violence Palestinians while dealing with the violence of the occupation.
“Today we are coming together and being good to each other,” Raje told MEMO. “We have an occupation and we are against occupation.
“But we will start with ourselves – to make ourselves better one way or another.”
“We are living under a situation of occupation and oppression,” explained Wahsh, a political prisoner herself in an Israeli prison back in 1979. “Our women are being killed [by the Israeli military] within house demolitions, checkpoints.”
But, “Today [is] for Israa,” Wahsh pointed out. “We want to announce to everyone it’s… time for the bloodshed to stop – at least on this side, that we are responsible for.”
Many criticisms arose online against the silence around Al-Gharib’s killing, putting forth a sentiment that social justice issues in Palestine too often get swept under the rug when faced with the fight for liberation.
In an Instagram post yesterday, Palestinian lawyer and author Noura Erakat wrote, “We protest Israeli torture, violence, self-righteous superiority… [but] it is incomplete and insincere when that struggle drops like a brick in our own homes.” Erakat pointed out the recent violence the PA police incited against the LGBTQ organisation Al-Qaws as another example of how the intricate forms of patriarchy permeate society and inhibit the capacity, “to transform and grow even as we unite against settler-colonial oppression.”
“Bringing justice to both women and to Palestine are not mutually exclusive,” BabyFist founder, Yasmeen Mjalli, wrote in a blog post. “Justice for one does not and should not hurt chances at justice for the other.
“In fact, Palestine will never truly be liberated until ALL of us are liberated.”
This article was updated on 6 September 2019 at 15:12 with further details of the circumstances surrounding Israa Al-Gharib’s death