AQQABA, West Bank (Reuters) - A silvery green olive grove set in the red soil of a Palestinian village is a crime scene - testament to a practice so sensitive that it is spoken of only in whispers.
One night in late November, Rasha Abu Ara, a 32-year-old mother of five, was beaten to death and strung from a gnarled tree branch as a gruesome badge of “family honor” restored.
The woman’s alleged sin was adultery, and her killer was either her own brother or husband, security sources told Reuters. Both are behind bars while an investigation continues.
Her murder brought to 27 the number of women slain in similar circumstances in Palestinian-run areas this year, according to rights groups - more than twice last year’s victims.
The rise has led Palestinians to question hidebound laws they say are lax on killers, as well as a reluctance to name and shame in the media and society, which may contribute to a feeling of impunity among perpetrators.
“It feels like something that belongs to another time,” said one young man in Aqqaba who refused to give his name, the first hints of a beard on his chin. “But, it’s standard.”
A week after the crime, Aqqaba mayor Jamal Abu Ara, who is a member of the victim’s extended family, and his brothers sat in their village home, smoking cigarettes and choosing their words carefully.
“This act has no religion - it comes from closed, tribal thinking left over from an age of ignorance. People here are walking around in a haze; they want to know who did it and why. Of course, it’s the first time it’s happened here,” he said.
His brother added: ”Islam requires you have four witnesses to prove the act of adultery.
“It’s not right what happened. Especially since if it were a man, some would just say ‘boys will be boys’,” he said.
A representative of the slain woman’s family declined to speak to Reuters.
“Honour killing” is a social menace that occurs throughout the Middle East, though precise figures are often elusive.
In neighboring Jordan, for example, a Cambridge University survey of attitudes among young people published in June found that a third of respondents agreed with the practice.
The researchers attributed the result to low levels of education and “patriarchal and traditional world views, emphasis placed on female virtue and a more general belief that violence against others is morally justified.”
The study estimated an average of 15 to 20 such killings occur every year in Jordan, with a population of around 6.3 million, compared to around 4 million in Palestinian lands.
Some activists believe the rise in honour killings indicates social and economic problems are mounting in the territories, where Palestinians exercise limited self-rule but Israel holds ultimate sovereignty, including over commerce.
But Soraida Hussein, whose rights group Muntada tallied this year’s killings, said the practice also has deep roots.
“There is no balance in power relations between the genders. There is a patriarchal mentality...as always, the force and pressure in society is transferred from the strong to the weak,” she said.
Palestinian female participation in the labor force stands at 17 percent, a figure the World Bank called “abysmally low,” noting that employers appeared to favor men, among whom joblessness was almost a third lower in 2013.
Hussein said that most of the killings related to “the movement and the freedom of the woman, so (perpetrators) say it’s an ‘honour killing '... also, there’s still no clear law to discourage the practice.”
Many of the cases had economic underpinnings, such as connections to disputes over inheritance, or may have been committed to cover up incest, she added.
The passing of stricter laws on violence against women is hamstrung by the absence of a Palestinian parliament, which has not met since President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party and the Islamist Hamas group fought a brief, bloody civil war in 2007.
Abbas has used his executive power to amend or cancel parts of the penal law, but has not yet changed all legislation which applies a separate status to domestic violence and has been used to justify killings and lighten prison sentences.
Palestinian Minister of Women’s Affairs Rabiha Diab saved much of her blame for violence toward women for Israel: ”The Israeli occupation is the one practising the utmost violence ... it’s the main thing keeping us from advancing.
“There’s been a deterioration, financial and psychological pressure on our society, poverty. But there are also certain backward cultural legacies that must be combated,” she said.
Unemployment and poverty both increased in 2013, with both standing at around 25 percent. Growth has slowed from boom rates averaging around 9 percent annually in 2008-2011 to just 1.8 percent in Gaza and the occupied West Bank in the first half of 2013, according to the World Bank.
Not just laws but lawmakers may be part of the problem.
Residents of the northern West Bank village of Deir al-Ghusun began muttering about Thamar Zeidan, a 32-year-old mother of two, after an apparently intoxicated man was spied leaving her home one morning, a local source told Reuters.
Elders, including a Hamas member of parliament, soon gathered and signed an announcement formally banishing her family from the larger tribe. The notice was pasted on the outer walls of homes and on the village mosque.
Days later in late September, Thamar was choked to death with a metal wire in her sleep.
Her father confessed to the deed.
The lawmaker, Abdel Rahman Zeidan, denied charges in the Palestinian media that the petition was tantamount to inciting murder, and said the banishment targeted the father, whom villagers say allowed his children too many freedoms.
“Taking the law into your own hands is wrong,” he told Reuters. “These acts are unacceptable, and laws must be passed to discourage them.”
Spreading awareness on the issue can open campaigners and journalists to criticism and even threats, which may partly explain its scant airing in public, however.
Press bulletins occasionally note the discovery of a woman’s body in what are called “hazy circumstances” - a common euphemism for honour killings. Names are concealed and the news is rarely followed up on.
“When you touch such stories, you’re up against a social taboo,” said Palestinian journalist Naela Khalil, whose work focuses on women’s issues.
“Here, the family is stronger than even the security forces. I might criticize Mahmoud Abbas more easily than a father or a brother who killed a woman. Doing this may mean a struggle with a whole family or village,” she said.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall