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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Working to End a Bloody Custom

JERICHO, West Bank -- Police or shepherds or hikers find them: the bloodstained bodies of women, murdered and dumped outside West Bank villages and towns. A woman discovered recently by a bulldozer driver near the village of Beit Jalla had been bound hand and foot and decapitated. Sometimes, they have been strangled, shot or burned alive. More often, the victim has been stabbed or hacked to death.

The murderer, if apprehended, nearly always turns out to be a close male relative -- father, brother, cousin, uncle. The men of one village, Beit Duqou, favor throwing women off their mosque's minaret.

The practice is called "honor killing," and it is so deeply rooted in the ancient Arab tribal structure that many barely consider it a crime. No accurate record is kept of how many women die this way each year in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but sociologists believe the count may be around two dozen.

According to tradition, a man is obliged to take the life of a close female blood relative if she does something that is perceived to sully the honor of the family. The most common transgression is for an unmarried woman to have sex.

Now a small group of Palestinian women -- political activists and feminists -- are hoping that the establishment of a Palestinian government, and the expected end of Israel's 27-year military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, will give them a chance to change their society's attitude toward honor killings.

Palestinian women stood side by side with the young men who confronted Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories during the Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israeli military rule, these advocates argue. Now is the time for them to call in their political chits with Yasser Arafat's fledgling Palestinian Authority.

"During the intifada, women were in the streets," said Maha Abdo, a social worker at the West Bank Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling. "They ... took on the national liberation struggle and stepped away from the social struggle. Now, women believe it is time to address the issue of the empowerment of women."

Many of society's pillars, its legal community and religious leaders, view the practice of honor killing as a powerful deterrent, a way of ensuring social order. "Murder is a bad and horrible thing," said Azmi Tanjeer, a Nablus lawyer who was a district court judge in the West Bank for 15 years under Israeli rule. "I am, of course, opposed to murder. But also, in my opinion, what is more important is moral stability in a society. Religion, culture, tradition calls for this [honor killing]. Maybe, if one woman is killed because of honor, it might stop other women from taking this step."

If a man is convicted of carrying out an honor killing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in surrounding Arab countries, he usually can count on serving a few years in prison and receiving the sympathy of his family and neighbors for being "forced" to take the life of his relative. Under the Jordanian law that has applied in the West Bank, duringthe 27 years of Israeli occupation an honor killing is considered murder with "special circumstances," which means the penalty is lighter than for any other kind of murder.

"Everyone will tell you that they are against this idea of honor killing," said Islah Abdul Jawad, a sociologist at Bir Zeit, a West Bank University. "But the fact is that the practice is tolerated."

One Palestinian women's organization in Israel, Al-Fanar (the Lighthouse), started helping women flee the country through a secret network of safehouses in 1991 after a Palestinian woman in a northern Israel village was burned alive by her father and brother for having sex before marriage.

The Palestinian Authority says it will guarantee women's rights once Israel hands over the administration of daily affairs in the West Bank.

Intisar Wazir, the only woman in Arafat's Cabinet, insisted in an interview at her Gaza office that the Palestinian Authority will change the laws and society's approach to honor killings.

"The sulta [Palestinian Authority] condemns killings for reasons of honor," said Wazir, who is minister for social welfare. "The view of the sulta is that murder is murder. Anyone who commits such a murder will be treated as a murderer."

Even though only a tiny percentage of Palestinian women falls victim to honor killings, the atmosphere of fear they create for all women is damaging, their advocates insist, and they must be battled in the courts and in educational programs.

"We have prepared ourselves," said Abdul Jawad, the sociologist."We want the Palestinian Authority to show a political, cultural and social will [to say]: 'We don't want this; this crime will not be minimized.' "