Hunted women of the GazaAs horrible as this is, I question the reporter's credibility.
ON a windswept winter day last week, just before afternoon prayers, three gunshots rang out across the damp sand dunes of northern Gaza. Mohammed Yousef was just about to climb the minaret of the beach mosque to summon the faithful when he heard the distinctive crack of a Kalashnikov, a sharp, violent, intrusion that has become a soundtrack for the turbulent Gaza Strip, especially this month.
He hurried outside, looking first down a rubbish-strewn strip of beach that leads to the Mediterranean, then left towards a low-set concrete fence. Just inside a narrow entrance lay the crumpled body of a small woman, wearing a green Islamic gown and a full black veil. Her blood seeped into the puddles of sandy water around her head. Mohammed didn't bother with an ambulance. He need not have bothered with the police.
The dead woman was Dalal al-Behtete, a young woman from a struggling family in central Gaza. Seven other women have met the same violent and lonely fate across Gaza during a 10-day stretch this month. According to their assassins, their deaths gave them honour that their conduct in life had not. All the women had been accused of immoral behaviour. Some had been labelled prostitutes; others were branded for fraternising with men outside their immediate families.
So-called honour killings have been carried out here in the past, but even in this ramshackle, anarchistic and fractured society, women have never before been hunted down so blatantly.
Gaza, more so than anywhere else in the Palestinian territories, has been a feudal battleground of countless agendas, historical enmity, ideology and greed. Historically, clans and tribes have ruled the roost here, with factionalised militant ideologies running a close second. But the balance appears to have shifted during the past six months. Strict observance of Sunni Islam seems to have encouraged a fundamentalist trend that is making a play for influence, through the rigid enforcement of radical Islamic law espoused by the global jihad network that follows the bin Laden world view.
Sharia law appears to have drifted into Gaza, alarming Muslim and militant groups alike and sharply rattling the neighbour across the security barrier, Israel.
Change had begun in Gaza long before its women began to fall. Late last year, several internet cafes and music stores were bombed. In February, six pharmacies in the southern town of Rafah were also attacked because they persisted in selling Viagra to youths. In the past year, the name of a new group, first heard of after the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit last June, persistently has been linked to the unrest.
It calls itself the Army of Islam and consists of self-styled morality warriors who claim links to al-Qa'ida. Hamas, the most powerful of the militant groups and a joint partner in the new unity government, steadfastly denies that al-Qa'ida has established an organised presence in Gaza. If it is true that al-Qa'ida has done so, it cripples Hamas's claims to be fighting for a Palestinian state alone and not being standard bearers of the global jihads.
Saha Rijab had never heard of the Army of Islam until she was dragged by her hair and tossed into a car by masked men with assault rifles hours before Dalal was murdered. From her hospital bed in central Gaza, she agrees to tell Inquirer of the ordeal that has left her legs riddled with bullets and nearly led her to become the eighth victim of Gazan women's most terrifying month.
"I was taking clothes to my female neighbour and I had to pass my cousin's house to get there," she says, wearing a yellow-knitted cardigan and a brown hijab. "My cousin was inside and saw me passing and he opened the door and came outside. I didn't look at him and he slammed the door against the wall."
Saha's cousin, Wael Rijab, is the head of the Hamas executive force in the northern Gaza Strip, the vanguard of the militant group's strike power and a key player in the blood-soaked factional in-fighting of the past three months. He has accused his cousin of immorality for the past five years, seemingly because of her preference for jeans, tops and sometimes flowing hair instead of the Islamic jilbab. Just as damaging was his accusation of treachery; she was an avowed supporter of the Fatah movement that Hamas deposed in elections 14 months ago. Both groups have since been entangled in a struggle for power in Palestinian society.
"I kept walking and gave my neighbour the jilbab, then came back home," Saha says, with her shocked 12-year-old son sitting beside her. "After that I took a taxi to the shop to buy fruit and some militants from the Hamas executive force were sitting in a Mitsubishi with darkened glass. Their windows were half open and they were looking at me.
"I was scared but I decided to just keep walking to my street. What else could I do?
"I was 20m away from my home, then their car moved and another one arrived; the cars started moving closer to me. They opened the door. They were masked and they were running after me, the driver and two others. I was a few metres away from a clothes shop, but they reached me and put their hands on me. They dragged me by the hair and clothes and pushed me inside the car. They blindfolded me and they tied my hands.
"When I took the blindfold off I was in a street full of taxis. They said: 'Where are you going?' And I said: 'I am going to my street, I swear to God.' They said: 'You know God and you dress like this?' I said: 'I know God better than you.' They said: 'Are you Fatah or Hamas?' I said: 'I am Fatah', and they replied: 'We spit on Fatah."'
Then they announced their allegiance as followers of the Army of Islam and told Saha she should dress liberally only for her husband.
She retorted: "This is politics and you are trying to avenge something. I have nothing to do with it. If this is just about the way I dress I will start wearing the jilbab.
"They said: 'We will beat you and force you to say, 'I had sex with my son.' Then they covered my eyes again. I could hear the sound of the sea and their mobiles were ringing all the time. We went to a market and they said: 'So, you promise you have not been in contact with any other men?"'
Terrified and haunted by the recent deaths of other women, Saha drew little comfort from the next words she heard: "OK, don't worry. We will take you home."
She was right to be wary. Minutes later, she tells Inquirer, the car stopped and she was thrown outside into the dirt. She wriggled furiously to free herself as the first bullet thudded into the bone just below her knee. Two more pierced her lower legs before the gunmen sped off.
At the Jabaliya police station, which notionally investigates crime in the north of the Gaza Strip, five officers usher us inside the dingy office of the lead junior officer. Two officers sit behind a desk, and others sit on old foam mattresses on single beds along the wall. There is no computer, let alone a typewriter, no files or cabinets, not even a notepad. The officers received about 30 per cent of their annual salary last year and have no operational budget of which to speak. But it isn't their dearth of resources that has left them hamstrung; it is the impossible task of taking on the perpetrators.
"What could we do even if we wanted to?" asks an officer, who refuses to be named. "We are ruled by the tribes and we will not fight the Hamas executive force."
In the case of Dalal, after escorting her body to the morgue and advising her distraught father of her death, the police will play no further role. Justice, if it is delivered, will be played out Gaza-style, in a cycle of vengeance.
But with the rising power of the so-called Army of Islam, even that seems unlikely. Dalal and three other women murdered during the 10-day stretch - Ibtisam Mohammed Abu Genas, Samira Tohami Debeki and Amany Khamis al-Hussary - were victims of killers who claimed the ideological backing of the fledgling group, even if the murders stemmed from bids for family honour.
The deaths pose a significant issue for the new unity government on many fronts, especially Hamas. No one in the uneasy Fatah-Hamas alliance wants to be seen to be linked to extremism, especially of the Salafi-Islamic kind.
Israel has long feared that Gaza will be turned into a platform for al-Qa'ida and the consortium of international jihadis that have emerged in its likeness. Creeping sharia law at the border is a worst-case scenario for the Jewish state; it fears it will lead to imported and intensified jihadism.
For Hamas, the links appear to be just as troubling. Saha says she recognised her tormentors as being members of the Hamas executive force.
Soon after Inquirer's visit to Dalal's grieving family, our translator receives a phone call from a cousin confessing to the murder. In a menacing tone, the man says he too is an executive force member and warns us not to publish the dead woman's story.
"These are the worst days ever here," Saha says, knowing well the risks she faces for speaking out.
"Hamas believes that women cannot be the ones who lead. So long as Hamas is in Gaza, the situation will keep developing."
Chulov has in the past shown almost an admiration for Hamas, so this article can hardly be accused of having a Zionist agenda. Chulov seems to accept fairly fantastic stories without proper skepticism from all sources (he defended his story last summer of the UN ambulance supposedly bombed by Israel in Lebanon even after contradicting himself numerous times, and last week he wrote a story that uncritically repeats Hamas' claim that Israel has 50,000 collaborators in the territories.)
Even this story has a self-contradiction - in one place he mentions seven other murders besides Dalal al-Behtete, and another time he says that Saha Rijab nearly became the eighth victim, although she would be the ninth. I don't like to count deaths where the names of the victims are not mentioned, and only one name was mentioned here that I hadn't listed previously. In addition, he said that these killings happened this month when they happened last month.
I will not accuse him of willfully lying, but Chulov does have a tendency to be reckless with facts in seeming pursuit of a good story, or journalistic awards.
For these reasons, I will only add one to my count of Palestinian Arabs violently murdered by each other. This brings our 2007 PalArab self-death count to 152.
But this also brings up the question of how many other deaths have gone unreported in the peaceful, unified PalArab territories, and whether the ones reported in the PA press are only the tip of the iceberg.
UPDATE: A PalArab in Nablus came to work and killed his boss, no doubt because of Zionist colonialism. 153.
UPDATE 2: A PalArab succumbed to a gunshot wound from last month when his friend was playing wih a gun and it accidentally fired. On that same day were two other accidental gunshot wounds, one other death. 154.
UPDATE 3: A Hamas terrorist blew himself up Monday while on training exercises near Khan Younis. 155.