Terra Incognita: A communal state of denial

Another day, another honor killing that goes unpunished.

Lod City Center 311 (photo credit: WikiCommons)
Lod City Center 311
(photo credit: WikiCommons)
On January 20, sometime after nightfall a pretty, dark-haired, 19-year-old woman arrived at the Central Bus Station in Ramle. At the corner of Herzl and Bialik streets, she hailed a taxi and asked to be taken to the Jawarish neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of the town. She didn’t get very far. The taxi stopped at a light and a man from a neighboring car got out and shot her several times.
Initial news reports minimized and confused the story, saying she got shot while getting out of the taxi. Another early report made it seem like the bullet was a stray. Ramle is a rough town, and it seems that some people assumed this was just a tragic accident. Eventually it emerged that the woman, Alla Dahar, was a promising medical student and a resident of the upper-class neighborhood of Kababir in Haifa – a community composed of the tiny Ahmadiyya Muslim sect.
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Within hours of her murder the police had arrested a suspect, Hassam Abu Ghanem, 24, a former boyfriend. It turns out Dahar was not a passive victim. She had complained to the police in Haifa in May that her boyfriend had threatened to kill her, and had assaulted her when she expressed a desire to study abroad.  For 10 days the police did nothing. When they informed the police in Ramle of the complaint, the police there closed the file; by then, Dahar was already abroad, so why cause trouble?
Some people will be quick to say that the lack of police interest is entirely related to the Arab ethnicity of the people involved. But that’s not the whole story. It’s not the first time police received complaints from a woman, Jewish or Arab, about abuse and didn’t do anything. The police sometimes do embarrassingly little to investigate serious cases, as is clear from the story about Neta Blatt- Sorek, whose murder at the hand of terrorists at Beit Jimal was initially ruled a suicide.
THE REAL story about the Dahar murder is not just about police incompetence. It isn’t just about an enterprising young woman who wanted to make something of herself, and whose only mistake was to go out with the wrong man. It is also about the great and terrible stae of denial regarding ‘honor’ killings, and the conspiracy of silence and lies surrounding them. After Dahar was murdered her mother, Marwa, told the media her daughter had never been in a relationship with the suspect, or been threatened.
But ‘honor’ killings and denial in Ramle are a sort of national pasttime.
In 2007, 20 female relatives of the Abu Ghanem clan came forward to police with stories of a reign of terror in their neighborhood. The Abu Ghanems are a Beduin clan that moved to Ramle in the 1950s and number around 2,000 people. They dominate the Jawarish neighborhood.
Over an eight-year period, nine female members of the family had been murdered to defend “family honor.”
In 2008, Dalia Abu Ghanem, a 16- year-old mother, disappeared. In 2000 her mother had been murdered, and in 2006 her sister, who was 15, was also murdered. Hamda Abu Ghanem, 18, wanted to be a nurse. Instead, she was beaten by her brother in 2007, ostensibly because she refused an arranged marriage. She called the police, and they appear to have done nothing. Then she was murdered, shot nine times in bed.
Reem Abu Ghanem, 19, was strangled to death.
Murder after murder, a long line of blood and body bags for just one community. The women are buried in unmarked graves – typical of cases where “honor” is involved. But the public receives the story in a different way. In neighboring Lod (another mixed town), two women were murdered in October. In total 20 Muslim women were slain in Ramle and Lod between 2005 and 2010.
After the spate of murders in Lod there were protests. Not against the men doing the killing. Not against the culture of “honor” which values a woman less than a car. The protest was against the government. This was a typical line of approach to the murders in Lod: It’s all about neglect, a lack of investment in the police force and the Arab community.
Arab MKs led the way. Jamal Zahalka (Balad) said: “I am against sweeping anything under the carpet, and in our community – just like in any community – there are men who use violence against women for all sorts of reasons, especially to prove their masculinity.” Afo Agbaria (Hadash): “The media is always so quick to label these murders honor killings, but we have to take these words out of our lexicon because every murder of a woman must be viewed as a murder, and nothing more.” Ahmed Tibi (Raam Ta’al) suggested banning the use of the phrase “honor killing” when referring to these types of crimes, and making it easier for relatives to sue the newspapers that describe the killings this way.
THIS IS the state of denial. The police do very little to prevent these killings, because the Arab community won’t cooperate with them, they lack resources and they are, unfortunately, incompetent. The community claims the killings don’t even happen, it’s all “mistaken identity” (you might ask yourself here, why then so many men aren’t being gunned down by stray bullets and buried in unmarked graves). For the Arab leadership, the words should simply disappear. For the Jewish public it is about neglect, and it is the government’s fault.
The extreme sense of hopelessness and denial can be seen in the statement by one Arab woman from Lod to the media: “The minute the police describe a murder as an ‘honor killing,’ it severely damages [the reputation of] the family for generations to come.”
The tragedy of this point of view is palpable. Honor killings can be stopped. The first step should be the passage of a bill to make them like hate crimes and crimes involving criminal conspiracy in the US. This will provide special tools to prosecutors and the police. The criminals involved should receive twice, maybe three times the normal sentence for murder.
But it mustn’t end with enforcement. Women in Arab communities must be empowered to speak out, whether via better witness protection or more avenues, and to feel that their culture and hardships are understood and respected.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.