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Police failing Arab women facing family violence in Israel

Elana Sztokman
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Published: 24 June 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

SHAHIRA FAKHER works with Arab women escaping family violence. She tells ELANA SZTOKMAN police and courts often don't help

Shahira Fakher had only been married for four years when she realised she needed to get out of the marriage. The 40-year-old, who holds two advanced degrees, speaks four languages, and had been supporting herself for years, was facing emotional, financial, and physical violence from her husband.  

But, paradoxically, Shahira says that the experience was a blessing for her. “It helped me understand the experiences of women in my community who are facing violence and come to me for help.”

As the Executive Director of the NGO Arous Elbahar – literally “The Bride of the Sea”, an old nickname for the neighborhood of Jaffa in southern Tel Aviv – Shahira serves the needs of women in her community who are trying to escape violence and abuse.

During Covid lockdowns, when Shahira was forced to take an unpaid leave for six months, she never stopped working because the number of women turning to the organisation for help doubled.

Although Palestinians are only 20% of Israel’s population, 58% of all murdered women are Palestinian-Israeli, 73% of whom had previously filed complaints with the police. 

Gender-based violence is a growing concern in Israel, especially in the Arab community. Four women have been murdered in the past week alone: Samar Kalasani, Sapir Nahum. Johara Hanifas, and an unidentified woman from Petah Tikva). A fifth woman, - Sabra El Rafi'a from Tel Sheva, has been missing for two weeks.

In 2021, 21 women in Israel were murdered by intimate partners or family members. So far in 2022, 11 women have been killed, five of whom were Arab.

Women in the Arab community are at greater risk. Police are less likely to act on Arab cases and sentences are lower.  Research conducted by WIZO and the Arab organisation Masarab Altopola for the Treatment of Women and Children shows indictment rates of 94.3% in cases where Jewish women were murdered and only 56% with Arab women. Conviction rates were 75% to 34 and sentences were three times as long when Jewish women were murdered.

Although Palestinians are only 20% of Israel’s population, 58% of all murdered women are Palestinian-Israeli, 73% of whom had previously filed complaints with the police. 

Family violence in the Arab community comes in the context of growing concern about police failure to manage violence across the Arab community. Israel Police are currently experiencing one of the most difficult months in history: the number of people killed across the country this month already stands at 16, the highest of any month this year. Eleven of the victims were Israeli Arabs. Since the beginning of the year, 59 people in total have been killed in Israel.

“There is a lot of work that the police need to be doing that they aren’t doing: cases that are closed too quickly, weapons that are too accessible that the police doesn’t take an interest in. This is violent crime, but it not being addressed,” says Shahira.

“Arab women have to fight on two fronts for the basic right to live in dignity. On one side, we have to fight against the discrimination and violence that we experience as women in our community. At the same time, we have to fight against the discrimination that we experience as Arabs in Israeli society. It’s a daily struggle coming at us from all sides.”  

Shahira lives this multi-faceted struggle in her own life. After her divorce, she had trouble renting somewhere to live. “As soon as landlords see my hijab and hear that my father’s name is Ahmed, they won’t rent to me.”  At the same time, she faced pressure to live with her parents because her community thought a 38-year-old, single, childless woman should not live alone.

The women who come to Arous Elbahar face multiple pressures of racism and discrimination from Israeli society alongside the struggle to be independent and safe, and to live with dignity and security.

Dalal teaches the women so much more than sewing. She teaches them about the importance of being strong and independent, and standing up for themselves. 

Over the past five years, Shahira has created projects to provide economic support, social services, legal counseling, and means of livelihood for more than 300 mostly Arab women. These include job training courses such financial management, English, Hebrew, career counseling, and women’s leadership. “The goal, is to enable women to be economically independent so that they can be free to make choices that are right for them.”

During Corona, she opened up a new course in sewing in order to provide new sources of income for women who had lost their jobs. The course is taught by a woman named Dalal Daoud who served 16 years in prison for murdering her abusive husband before being granted early release. Daoud spoke at an event of the organisation earlier this year. “I begged for help,” she recalled. She went from door to door of social services, the police, and hospitals, once bleeding in front of the social worker – and still nobody helped her. When her four-day-old baby was being violently abused by her husband, she took action and killed her husband.

Dalal, who studied many subjects in prison and today is a sought-after motivational speaker in community, is an important role-model for Shahira. “Dalal teaches the women so much more than sewing,” Shahira said. “She teaches them about the importance of being strong and independent, and standing up for themselves.” 

For her master’s degree in family therapy, Shahira studied the issue of domestic violence among Palestinian women in Jaffa. She compared poor and middle-class women to see how their situations compare and found that all the women experienced multiple forms of abuse – emotional, physical, sexual abuse – and that the middle-class women were in some ways worse off in that they experienced more complex forms of economic violence as well, such as having their wages taken by their husbands.

Shahira will soon be taking leave from her job in order to embark on a doctoral studies program in Germany. Her research will further explore violence in the community and explore how constructs of masculinity in the Palestinian community are impacted by the Naqba. “My goal is to ultimately change the way gender socialisation is taught in schools, and to educate children in non-violence.”

She wants both women and men in the community to be socialised differently. “The women who come to the organisation for help are just like me. And they know that if I can get to this place of strength, independence, and freedom, so can they.”

Seven Murdered Across Israel in Bloody Weekend (Haaretz)

Of the seven victims, four were Arab. Despite police data attesting to a slight decline in homicides in Israel's Arab community, they do not feel any safer

Photo: Shahira Fakher in Jaffa (Elana Sztokman)

About the author

Elana Sztokman

Dr Elana Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, anthropologist, and activist. Her latest book is 'When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture'.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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