Palestinian women demand change after tragic death of Israa Ghrayeb

Assaults that led to makeup artist's death are all too common, activists say

Palestinian women  protested in front of the prime minister's office in Ramallah on September 2,2019 to demand an investigation into the death of Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old woman whom many suspect was the victim of a so-called honor killing.(Photo by Heidi Levine for The National).
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The image of 21-year-old Israa Ghrayeb – her frame slim and confident and her fine features illuminated by impeccably applied makeup – haunted Arab social media in early September after news of her suspicious death in August spread online.

So did a heartbreaking Instagram story posted in August of a catheter in the Palestinian makeup artist’s arm alongside an announcement that she would be taking a break from work after male relatives allegedly beat her for posting a video online with her fiance-to-be before their formal engagement.

“I’m strong and I have the will to live – if I didn’t have this willpower, I would have died yesterday,” she wrote in the post from a hospital in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. “Don’t send me messages telling me to be strong, I am strong. May God be the judge of those who oppressed me and hurt me.”

But most shocking of all was the blurry video replaying pained shrieks and the sounds of strikes that also circulated after Israa’s death on August 22. The video, reportedly taken by a nurse, captured perhaps the final moments of her life as male relatives beat her in her hospital room, according to local Palestinian media reports and women’s activists.

Israa's family denied any involvement in her death. Some family members told local media she died from a heart attack, while others posited on social media that she had been possessed by a jinn – a supernatural being.

A photograph of Israa Ghrayeb posted on her Instagram account, through which she shared news from hospital of the first time she was beten up. Israa Ghrayeb Instagram
A photograph of Israa Ghrayeb posted on her Instagram account, through which she shared news from hospital of the first time she was beten up. Israa Ghrayeb Instagram

Palestinian attorney general Akram Khatib said on Thursday that Israa had died of “severe respiratory failure due to beatings and violence”, after a forensic report of her death leaked online.

Mr Khatib said three of Israa's relatives would be charged over her death under Article 330 of the Palestinian penal code, which covers “unintentional murder” and carries a punishment of up to five years in jail. He identified them only by their initials.

Palestinians are asking why it took so long for police to take the case seriously – and how many more such cases have gone ignored or victims blamed instead.

After Israa’s story began circulating on social media in September, it sparked days of online outrage and protests in the Palestinian Territories against government inaction in stopping violence against women.

This is a patriarchal mentality that says there's family honour that's linked to a woman. It's not true.

And yet weeks after her death and the spread of #We_Are_All_Israa_Ghrayeb campaigns online, women’s activists are still wondering: will those responsible for her death – and others like hers – actually be held accountable?

The case sparked such widespread attention in part because Israa had a following on social media for her work as a makeup artist. The gruesome details of her death also shocked the public. She reportedly fell from the second-floor balcony of her family home and broke her spine while attempting to escape her brother’s torture and beatings at her father’s behest. Once in the hospital, staff and police failed to protect her, say activists.

Israa's death also lit a spark of outrage because her “story actually talks about the story of every woman in Palestine”, said Dina Tadrous, 23, at a recent protest in Ramallah calling for legislation against gender-based violence. “Every woman who is at risk of getting killed because she wanted to express herself freely,” she continued.

Ms Tadrous roundly rejected the term “honour killing” to describe Israa's death.

“The word honour killing is actually not relevant,” she said. “This is a patriarchal mentality that says there's family honour that's linked to a woman. It’s not true. She was part of institutions that were not able to protect her from violence.”

It is difficult to track Palestinian cases of femicide because of the social stigma and lack of laws specifically criminalising such acts. According to the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling, a Palestinian NGO, 23 Palestinian women and girls were killed last year.

"Israa was murdered by members of her family after she posted a selfie video of an outing with her fiance,” the Adalah Justice Project, a Palestinian human rights organisation, said in a statement. “The crime is being called an 'honour' killing, but this is misleading and false. There is no honour in murder.”

In recent protests, women’s rights organisers zeroed in on specific demands for the government to amend the laws related to gender-based violence.

A Jordanian law – still on the books from when Jordan occupied the West Bank from 1948-1967 – grants leniency to men accused of killing female relatives. Articles 98 and 99 of the Palestinian Penal code “grants judges the ability to dramatically reduce sentences” for “extenuating circumstances” – a loophole that has been used to let men who kill women off the hook.

Khitam Saafin, president of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committee, said their “main goal now is to ask the government at least to make new laws protecting against violence” – something they’ve been requesting for years. Jordan has since amended the law that is still being applied in the Palestinian Territories, she said.

We need a new legal system. But as you know, there is no legislative body working now in Palestine.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suspended Articles 98 and 99 in 2018, but activists say the effect is minimal. That is because the legislation dealing with violence against women is outdated. The laws in the Palestinian Territories are a mix of British mandate, Jordanian and Israeli legislation, but updating them would require the approval of the parliament which has not met since 2007 following a civil war between the Fatah-dominated PA in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“We need a new legal system,” said Ms Saafin. “But as you know, there is no legislative body working now in Palestine.”

Ms Saafin said she was in talks with the government about pushing through emergency laws – the only way to introduce new legislation while parliament is suspended – to better protect women and girls and was "hopeful" even though this had never been done before.

Amal Khreishe, director of the Palestinian Working Women Society for Development, said that another impediment to legal and cultural change is that “there's no separation between the state and religion. So it’s a big challenge.”

Both of the women’s rights campaigners also connected the violence at home to the Israeli occupation around them.

“We have a mixture of violence,” said Ms Khreishe. “The Israeli occupation, domestic violence, all types of violence.”

She added: “We witness all of the time when there is severe Israeli harassment during curfews, during closures, we witness increasing domestic violence… But the idea is that, as everywhere, men want to show their control on women’s bodies and minds and appearances to show their power. This is the formula everywhere.”

Israa's case has further been marred by alleged corruption and malpractice within the Palestinian forensic departments, according to an investigation by Al Hadath, a Palestinian newspaper, which it said raised "suspicion and a widening circle of questions".

The paper reported that three doctors involved in writing Israa's post mortem report resigned on September 8 because of longstanding abuses of the system, such as tampering with evidence by security forces, non-specialists signing off as doctors, and wrongful convictions and acquittals resulting from faulty work.

The Palestinian Ministry of Justice in turn issued a statement denying that the resignations were related to Israa’s case, saying the doctors quit because they were facing “disciplinary penalties”.

As the investigation continues, Palestinian women’s activists are trying to keep up pressure to bring those responsible to account and to change the legal system to prevent further violence. That is a hard sell for some who say Palestinian internal problems, and particularly those regarding the status of women, should not be aired publicly in the current political climate – an argument that falls short for Ms Saafin.

“We can't separate all of the suffering of Palestinian women,” she said. “At the same time Palestinian women suffer the occupation, they suffer from other reasons of oppression. We can't make ourselves blind about what is happening in our society. We need our women free and powerful.”