Law and Order: Police curb 'honor killings'

In 2012, for the first time in nearly a decade, police in the Central District say not a single woman was murdered there by male relatives for ‘honor,’ which they credit to their program to identify and protect at-risk women.

lod370 (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Samah Salaime Egbariya sits in her small storefront office in the Israeli-Arab town of Lod and describes some of the murders in Lod and Ramle in recent years, rattling off the names of the women gunned down and stabbed to death by male relatives in what are commonly called “honor killings.”
She mentions the case of Yasmine Abu Tzaluk of Lod, who was shot 14 times – including seven times in the head – by her husband, Khaled, in April 2011, after a long dispute over his decision to take a second wife, and of a beautiful teenage girl killed after refusing her brother’s demand that she marry his business associate, a drug dealer from Jaffa.
Inside the office of the organization she runs – Na’am – Arab Women in the Center – Egbariya is collecting chairs and tables for a lecture and puppet show about sexual abuse that her organization is performing for young Arab women at a community center across the street, an event she says would have been unthinkable a few years back.
According to Egbariya, such community outreach by her organization and others has helped foster a greater awareness among local Arab women about what is permissible in relationships, and how to exert their own rights at home, an awareness that she says is partly responsible for the fact that in 2012, for the first time in a decade, not a single Israeli-Arab woman was murdered in a so-called honor killing in the police’s Central District.
“Calling it an honor killing was a way to shut it down and for police to say there’s nothing they could do. We fought for this for years, fought for them to stop calling them honor killings and to invest more time and reach out more to the community.
This didn’t just happen by accident.”
For Egbariya, the success in curbing the murders is merely an indication of what the work of local activists and media attention can achieve by forcing the hand of police.
“What this proves is that when the police want to do something, they can,” she says.
In years past, the killings would follow a certain script – doors and windows would be closed and the streets emptied in the Arab neighborhoods of Ramle and Lod, and hours later police would get a call to come pick up the body. Over the past decade, the Central District of the Israel Police notched over a dozen such murders – carried out on the pretense of protecting “family honor” – which shocked both Arab and Jewish Israelis.
Ch.-Insp. Yigal Ezra, a veteran detective in the Central District, believes that over the past 15 years there have been about 20 murders of Arab women by male loved ones in the district.
A woman would sue for divorce, or refuse a marriage proposal, or rumors would begin to circulate about a woman in her community – often for things as simple or innocent as claims that she was talking to boys in Internet chat rooms, or texting men who weren’t relatives or husbands. The rumors would take off, and often be enough to spell the woman’s end.
But last month, the Central District announced that in 2012, for the first time in a decade, not a single woman in the district was murdered in a socalled honor killing.
While local activists and police differ about the reasons for this success, police tout their efforts to build bridges with the Israeli Arab community, in particular through a program they launched three years ago to identify and protect local at-risk women, and to reach out to them and their male relatives before rumors or perceived transgressions led to murder.
For the Central District, that outreach effort has largely been led by Ezra, the district’s adviser for Arab affairs.
Ezra describes himself as a combination of community counselor and fixer, more than just a cop.
Sitting in his office at the district headquarters, equipped with an electric coffee pot to brew black coffee for visiting sheikhs and young men from the Arab community, this middleaged Arabic-speaking Jew – whose roots lie in Iraq – says his work focuses on meeting community members face-to-face, with the ultimate goal of forging better cooperation.
“Everyone would clear the street, close the blinds and turn the lights out in their homes, and then the murder would take place. A few hours later police would get a call saying ‘There’s a body here.’ We’d come, and it would be absolute silence, no cooperation from the community. Our goal for the past few years is that they stop closing the windows, that they open them and look, and call us,” Ezra says.
The Central District is one of the largest in the Israel Police. Home to more than 1,600,000 residents in over 230 towns and cities, it includes not only Lod and Ramle, but also the Arab cities of a region called “the Triangle.”
In the fall of 2010 there were a series of “honor killings” in Lod – including three in October, among them two women shot to death, separately, in front of their children.
The bloodshed spurred Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit the city, where he pledged to return a sense of security to residents.
Paramilitary police were deployed, and for a short time all eyes were on the city, long a hotspot of the nation’s drug trade.
The media attention forced police to address the “honor killings” head on, and pressure from locals forced them to change the terminology used to describe them, with Police Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino issuing an order in February 2012 that all officers must henceforth call them “murders within the family.”
EZRA ARGUES that Israelis have erred in viewing these murders as part of Islamic tradition, saying they’re in fact part of a pre-Islamic Beduin tradition that has spread into the wider Arab culture.
It is, he says “a clash between tradition and modernity and the criminality of people involved.
“What you have are criminal gangs that have taken over the culture of their families with their culture of machismo and criminality,” he says.
Ezra says the killings most often happen in families already mixed up in the guns-and-drugs trade, and that the killers are typically “people who are already easy on the trigger, have already taken lives and have easy access to guns.”
He believes that preventing such murders requires identifying and reaching out to women in danger and their male relatives, to include police in the equation before a murder can be committed. If need be, police will contact social services and have the woman placed in a battered women’s shelter, not a desirable solution by anyone’s standards.
“This is our last option. At the end of the day it’s a prison for battered women. She has to stay there all day and night by herself; she’s out of touch with her family and friends while the criminal is still out there running around freely.”
Without the cooperation of relatives and witnesses, the murders are especially difficult to solve.
Ezra says that for the last several years police have worked on gradually building trust with the community, through dialogue, lectures, and a give-and-take relationship.
He describes helping residents of the Muslim town of Jaljulya in the Triangle deal with an overzealous municipal worker who had been handing out tickets to cars parked at a mosque during Friday prayers, working to get the tickets canceled.
Such efforts, he says, are meant to encourage members of the community to see him and his fellow officers as people who can help, and not just as someone who will throw them into the back of a squad car.
His efforts have paid off, and young Arab men even call him up for advice about their domestic problems.
“It’s pretty funny, I know, to have an Arab man calling a Jewish guy for marital advice,” Ezra says.
Along the way he’s also assisted with sulhas, or reconciliation, between Arab families in the district, even organizing a meeting between members of two warring families from Jaljulya, all convicted murderers serving life sentences in prisons across Israel. He brought the five men together for a sit-down at a prison and posted the images on a popular Israeli-Arab Internet forum, where the relatives still gunning for each other on the outside could see the efforts launched behind bars.
Ultimately, however, the success of such outreach programs depends on how much day-to-day cooperation police receive from civilians – the best source of intelligence they have.
“When I say intelligence, though, it’s not like the Mossad or the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency]. It’s often based on rumors we hear, or because a woman decides to come forward to testify,” says Central District head Asst.-Ch. Benzi Sau.
Sau says that over the past decade there have been about 35 murders per year in the district, around a third of them women killed in domestic violence.
When a Jewish woman is murdered, 90 percent of the time it’s by her husband, he says, adding that in the Arab sector the picture is far less clear – suspects often include all of the woman’s adult male relatives.
He explains that on the intelligence level, police will hear of a woman who is in danger, or being abused, and they’ll call her in for a consultation. Officers then visit the family, and detain the men they think pose a threat to her, and bring in community leaders to help mediate the dispute. As a last resort, police will contact social services to have them meet with the woman and if need be, find a shelter where she can relocate temporarily.
Along the way, Sau’s officers fight a culture of suspicion toward the police, whose 2,800 force members in the Central District include only 15 Muslims.
“They say we don’t care enough about the sector to solve crimes, but the more they cooperate, the more crimes we solve, it can’t work without them,” Sau insists.
It’s a common theme in the relationship between police and Israel’s Arab citizens, one marked by mutual suspicion and frustration. Arab Israelis, who make up around 20% of the population, have a complicated, and at times antagonistic relationship with the Jewish state.
In addition to complaints of police brutality they often see police as indifferent or unresponsive toward crime in their communities, without the same concern they show toward crime in Jewish towns and cities.
Police officials, for their part, have repeatedly stated their intention of restoring a sense of security to the Arab sector, where illegal firearms are widely available and the homicide rate is much higher than in Jewish Israeli society. They say such efforts are stymied by a wall of silence and the refusal to cooperate with police.
Over the years, some of the worst acts of violence have been carried out against women of the Abu Ganem clan, a Beduin family in and around Ramle that numbers in the thousands.
“Wael,” a 49-year-old father of 10 from the clan, says the killings have stopped largely through a change in police tactics.
“Sometimes when there’s a fight or argument in Jawarish [a rundown neighborhood on the outskirts of Ramle] the police will come and sit with both sides to try to work it out before it gets out of hand. This is something they didn’t do before.”
Wael, who asked for his real name not to be used, sits in an apartment building in Jawarish, once the setting for clan warfare that saw dozens killed. It has quieted down considerably since the days when it was a center of the drug trade in the 1980s and ’90s.
He says that these days, police spend more time trying to find people in the community they can reach out to, rather than just arrest.
“They’ll sit with them and work on a hudna [truce] and about 50% of the time they can have an influence over the feuding families.”
At the end of the day, he says, the onus is mainly on the community.
“When there’s a murder in the Jewish sector, the whole family cooperates with the police; they know who did it right away. With us, it’s the opposite,” says Wael.
Issa, Wael’s father-in-law, says in the past there were people who the police knew had threatened their wives or were a threat, but “they just sat on their hands and didn’t do anything until something happened, now they’re trying more to reach them before that point.”
Still, when thinking of the women with their whole lives ahead of them who were gunned down or stabbed to death, the feeling for Wael is mainly one of senseless murder.
“I look at all these women who were killed, and there wasn’t a single one that was about honor. They were all killed for no reason.”