Palestinian women hold a banner that reads in Arabic, "General Union of Palestinian Women, we need a law to protect us and to protect the Palestinian family," during a rally in front of the Prime Minister's office, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Monday, September 2, 2019. Hundreds of Palestinian women protested in front of the prime minister's office 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.

© AP Photo/Nasser Nasser
Videos that circulated on social media in August appearing to show a hospital corridor with a woman heard pleading and screaming, and sounds of intermittent thuds, have sparked protests and outrage at the lethal cost that Palestinian women pay because of a lack of protections and discriminatory laws.

The woman in the video was Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian make-up artist from the village of Beit Sahour in the southern West Bank who had been hospitalized on 10 August after being beaten by her family. The videos suggested she may have been subject to further beating while in hospital. She was later discharged but on 22 August she died. A social media campaign #كلنا_اسراء_غريب (“We Are All Israa Ghrayeb”) snowballed, calling for justice for Ghrayeb and more protections for women.

On 12 September, the Palestinian Authority attorney general Akram al-Khatib finally held a news conference to address her death. He said she had died of respiratory failure as a result of serious injuries from domestic violence. He also contended that that the police had not initially conducted an investigation because when they spoke to her, she had apparently said she had been injured in a fall and had no visible marks on her body. He acknowledged that the videos of her screams at the hospital were authentic but gave no further information about these incidents.

He said an investigation concluded that Israa had been repeatedly subjected to psychological and physical violence. Prosecutors charged three unnamed individuals under article 330 of the Penal Code for assault that led to an unintentional killing, which carries a sentence of at least five years in prison.

The attorney general said only that, “based on our investigation, this is not an ‘honor crime’; the motives will be made clear in court when the charge sheets are issued.”

While the investigation and the charges are positive steps, the case highlights the need for a comprehensive domestic violence law to prevent such violence from occurring in the first place and to protect and assist victims. The Palestinian nongovernmental organization Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC) documented a total of 23 killings of women in the West Bank and Gaza in 2018 –10 in Gaza and 13 in the West Bank.

Women’s rights groups have pushed for a comprehensive domestic violence law since 2007 and the Palestinian Authority has been reviewing a draft Family Protection Law since 2016. Ikhlas Sufan, who directs a shelter for victims of violence in Nablus, told Human Rights Watch in 2018 that domestic violence continues because “there are no legal or social deterrents” and the abuser “knows he can get away with it.”

A domestic violence law should set out the obligations of the authorities to prevent violence, protect survivors, and prosecute abusers. This includes training police on how to identify and screen for domestic violence, how to conduct investigations appropriately, and how to build trust in the community so that victims feel safe to seek help.

Prevention is key. A version of the draft bill that Human Rights Watch reviewed in 2018 included an article that obligated all ministries and institutions to reduce domestic violence by developing programs, policies, and plans to combat such violence and to promote a public policy response, including education.

Palestinian authorities should ensure that the draft law and policies tackle the root discrimination, including the idea, prevalent among many, that women must adhere to a strict moral code of behaviour and that men should use violence and other means to control women’s behaviour.

Protection systems are vital to ensuring women’s safety. The draft law we saw included provisions for emergency protection orders restraining orders – to prohibit contact between the accused and the victim, including removing the accused from the home. The draft also would require the police and family protection units to accept complaints, investigate, and assist and protect survivors. Protection orders can save lives and should be both easy for victims to get, and effective. Police should receive training on how to interview survivors in private and assist them.

Claims that so-called “honor” violence or killings are one-time reactions to behaviour deemed to transgress moral codes are questionable. Instead such violence may occur in a continuum of domestic violence in which the perpetrator uses abuse or threats to control a woman’s behaviour or movements. Such killings moreover are never justifiable and terming it as “honor” killings may reinforce the idea that the victim is to blame for their own deaths.

Prosecuting domestic violence requires criminalizing abuse in all its forms: physical, psychological, economic, and sexual. The draft bill as reviewed by Human Rights Watch criminalizes specific forms of abuse such as forced marriage and increases penalties for physical violence. However, the authorities should go further to explicitly criminalize domestic violence in full including marital rape.

The draft bill should maintain provisions that allow prosecutors to pursue a criminal case in the absence of a formal complaint from the victim if they have evidence of abuse, which is critical as otherwise abusers or their families can pressure victims not to start or proceed with a complaint. The Palestinian authorities should amend the draft Family Protection Law to ensure full protection of survivors and pass it expeditiously. The authorities should also end all forms of discrimination in law, including provisions in the personal status laws that require women to obey their husbands.

The questions hanging over Israa Ghrayeb’s killing should lead to conclusions about what the authorities could have done to protect her from such violence and what is needed now to prevent any more violence and killings. Until those measures are fully in place and the authorities routinely carry them out, we are all Israa Ghrayeb.