AQQABA, West Bank — The news spread at dawn, and people in the village made their way to the olive tree where the bruised body of a young mother of six was hanging, her veil torn off. She had been killed in the name of honor.
“For two weeks, her children were incapable of sleeping, crying for their mother,” said Ahmad Abu Arra, a cousin of the victim. “We want justice.”
Here in this northern West Bank mountain town of breathtaking views, the relatives of Rasha Abu Arra, 32, who was killed in November after rumors spread that she had committed adultery, are adding their voices to an outcry against honor killings in the Palestinian territories.
Twenty-seven women are thought to have been killed last year in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by family members claiming reasons of “honor” — more than double the 13 cases documented in 2012. The age-old rationale can serve as a cover for domestic abuse, inheritance disputes, rape, incest or the desire to punish female independence, according to Maha Abu-Dayyeh, the general director of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, a Palestinian human rights group that tracks the killings.
Honor killing, once hidden behind a curtain of silence and shame, is beginning to generate condemnation of its perpetrators, public support for its victims and vows to stop the practice.
“The entire society is incensed by the increase,” said Rabiha Diab, the minister of women’s affairs in the West Bank. “It is a very worrying situation, not just in the occupied Palestinian territories, but all over the Arab world.”
There is no agreement on whether this increase reflects an uptick in killings or better reporting of incidents by the news media, activists and authorities. Some suggest that urbanization and technology have fueled social tensions in the deeply traditional Palestinian society.
In December, the Palestinian Authority, which governs much of the West Bank, began training police and hospital staff to detect and report such abuses and threats as part of an effort to combat violence against women. Diab is pushing to require prosecutors to involve her ministry in investigations of suspected honor crimes, and she is seeking to purge the Palestinian legal code of laws that guarantee light sentences for honor killings.
The suspected honor killings of two teenage girls in Gaza in recent days drew a rebuke from Hanan Ashrawi, a top official with the Palestine Liberation Organization, who called for immediate legal amendments that impose “maximum sentences” for those convicted of killing women.
“The woman is not an emblem of honor for the man or her family,” Ashrawi said in a statement. “The categorization of such crimes under misleading labels constitutes the exploitation of women, and in turn, it safeguards the offenders and promotes more crimes of this nature.”
In recent years, other suspected victims have included a young Gazan mother of five who was bludgeoned to death by her father because he suspected she was using her cellphone to talk to a man. In September, a mentally disabled 21-year-old in the West Bank city of Hebron was allegedly killed by her mother after she was sexually assaulted. Another West Bank woman, who had divorced an abusive husband, allegedly was strangled by her father after being accused of “disgraceful” acts in a petition that news reports said was signed by a legislator from the Islamist militant movement Hamas, which rules Gaza.
Muslim clerics have become some of the most vocal critics of the killings, women’s groups say. Sheik Yousef Ideis, head of the Palestinian Islamic-law court, has warned that “innocent women” were being killed by relatives on the basis of hearsay that would be ignored if they were men. He also said that the killings are a discriminatory practice that violates the teachings of the Koran.
“Citing honor as a justification to kill is completely rejected in Islam,” Ideis wrote in an article published on his court’s Web site, according to the Palestinian news agency Maan. “This tradition was spread during the pre-Islamic
pagan era, and Islam fought it.”
As police become more vigilant, and neighbors even in small, close-knit villages such as Aqqaba speak up, the perpetrators have begun to disguise the killings as accidents, such as falling off a roof, Abu-Dayyeh said.
Palestinian news media have begun to report more on honor killings, adding to the sense of outrage over the crimes.
In 2011, Palestinians were shocked by the television coverage of the killing of a popular university student, Aya Baradiya, 20, allegedly thrown into a water well in Hebron and left to die by an uncle who disapproved of her suitor. There were protests, with some students describing her as a “martyr.”
In the fallout, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas annulled a law dating to Jordan’s occupation of the West Bank that allowed sentences of no more than six months for honor killings.
But similar laws remain, some dating to the Ottoman Empire. And pardons and suspended sentences are common, according to women’s groups that are publicly demanding a legal overhaul to end honor pleadings. Some activists blame the slow progress on a reluctance to offend conservatives.
The killing of Rasha Abu Arra shocked Aqqaba. In the village, most families share one of three last names and steer their daughters through tradition-bound lives even though they live just a few miles from the Arab American University, a private institution where thousands of young Palestinian women study for careers.
The local imam, Sheik Mustafa Abu Arra, denounced the killing, saying that those who suspect religious violations “should respect the rule of law.”
The victim’s husband and brother are jailed as suspects, and other family members have been detained for questioning, according to Aqqaba Mayor Jamal Abu Arra.
“People were outraged,” he said. “This is not accepted by our religion or our traditions. We need legislation to support and protect women.”
The mayor said the killing should be pursued as first-degree murder, without the pleas of honor that can shorten a prison sentence to less than a year. In the past, honor killings didn’t even make it to the courts, he said.
“It was a terrible shock for all the children,” he said. “Every child has a mother. She represented all the mothers of the town. It had a very destructive psychological impact.”
It was no secret here that Rasha Abu Arra and her husband, a police officer, weren’t getting along. Some townspeople said the victim’s in-laws spoke maliciously behind her back.
People saw her talking on her cellphone. They began to whisper that she was secretly carrying on with a man, who has since disappeared, though some of her relatives deny there was adultery.
She left the house with her brother one day in late November and didn’t come back, the mayor said. Her husband told his family that she had disappeared, but he waited two days to report it to the police, the mayor said.
Rasha Abu Arra’s oldest son, Adham, 13, waited for hours with townspeople under the olive tree for investigators to arrive and collect evidence. The victim’s mother took to her bed, paralyzed by grief.
Baker Abu Arra, 43, a cousin of the victim, said the killing brought back terrible memories of two local girls who were raped when he was a boy and then killed by their families to cleanse the stain on their honor; the rapists went unpunished.
“This killing has destroyed a whole family,” he said.
Nisreen Abu Zayyad contributed to this report.