By DIAA HADID
Associated Press Writer
RAMLE, Israel (AP) _Hamda Abu Ghanem feared for her life, but there was no one to protect her. Shortly after returning home from a battered women's shelter, she was shot to death while she slept _ the ninth woman in her clan killed for dishonoring the family.
The 19-year-old's crime: speaking to a man in secret.
Now, Hamda's sisters are in hiding, the chief witness to the slaying is missing and Arab women in this central Israeli town live in fear _caught between an unforgiving tradition that allows little contact between the sexes, a community afflicted by violence and drugs, and anemic government intervention.
Several of Hamda's relatives and friends took the rare step of speaking to The Associated Press about the terrifying world in which they live _ a world in which a woman's life can be taken with impunity by a male relative who suspects her of sexual misconduct.
Her grieving mother adds a silent testimony _ wounds she has inflicted on her own flesh to mirror the places she says her own son's bullets pierced his sister's body.
According to U.N. statistics, more than 5,000 women and girls die across the world each year in so-called "honor killings." Suspicion, not proof, rules. Islam forbids the practice, but powerful
conservative Arab tradition allows it.
Last year, eight women were victims in Israel's Arab community of 1.4 million people, women's groups said.
But although honor killings aren't uncommon here, nine in one clan is unprecedented.
Police warn marked women, encourage them to go to shelters, try to bring suspected killers to prosecution, and attempt to enlist the help of community leaders, said Limor Gueta, a spokeswoman for the Ramle police district.
But "there aren't enough police in order to give the services we should give," Gueta acknowledged.
A wall of voiceless witnesses only makes things harder, police said.
Also a factor: Police and the Ramle municipality do not have a program to prevent honor killings _ a point activists say proves violence against Arab women isn't taken seriously.
"Honor killings aren't a priority," said Aida Touma, director of Women Against Violence, which sets up shelters for abused Arab women in Israel.
"At the very least it's a subconscious form of racism that holds, 'They are Arabs, that's their culture and tradition. They kill their women,'" she said.
Only two men have been arrested in the nine Abu Ghanem murders that have taken place over the past 11 years, and only one was convicted, because families destroyed evidence and lied to police to protect the killers, said a spokesman for national police, Micky Rosenfeld.
When police try to probe for information, "nobody is talking," confirmed Gueta. "This is a code, and nobody is willing to break it."
Hamda's older sister, Sahar, has begun speaking out against her powerful, armed clan and honor killings, at the risk of her own life, fleeing to a secret location with her six children days after Hamda died.
"I want to break this wall of silence, I want to stop honor killings," Sahar told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Relatives say Hamda's brother Kamil gunned her down on Jan. 16. He is now in prison, and police said they intend to press murder charges.
"Hamda died for nothing," Sahar said. "She was honorable. The people who killed her have no honor."
Abu Ghanem vigilante justice is well known in Ramle. One cousin, Reem, was drugged by a brother and thrown in a well after refusing to marry the man her family chose. Reem's mother, Nayfa, was stabbed to death. Another woman "slipped" in the bathroom and died of her wounds. Others were gunned down or stabbed to death.
Clanswomen would sing, "Whose turn? Mine or yours?" Sahar said.
"We Abu Ghanem women are all waiting to die," she said.
Hamda was hospitalized three times after Kamil beat her. She explained away the bruises and nosebleeds by saying she fell down the stairs _ a lie her mother, Imameh, encouraged to cover up the family problems.
"Kamil was very jealous _ he'd go crazy when neighborhood men told him they saw his sisters," Imameh said.
After the last hospitalization, Hamda complained to police and fled to a shelter. Kamil was jailed.
But she came home once she turned 18, knowing she was liable to die, but figuring she couldn't live in the shelter forever.
Soon after she returned, her brother was released from jail, and Hamda was shot nine times in her bed.
"I am the mother of a murdered woman and her murderer," Imameh told an Arabic newspaper.
She showed the AP gashes and welts she inflicted on her arms and stomach after her daughter died.
Imameh's sorrow also was etched on her daughter's gravestone, which read: "Hamda, daughter of Imameh" _ breaking traditional relations between Hamda and her patriarchal clan.
Beneath appears a verse of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, that denounces men who kill innocent women: "And if you ask the buried-alive girl, for what crime was she killed?"
Activists point to the mysterious disappearance of the chief witness days after Hamda's murder as a sign of police incompetence. Police, who deny the charge, are investigating whether the witness' family hid her or whether she, too, became a victim. They said she refused their advice to go to a shelter.
Abu Ghanem women and community activists have little faith that police and municipal social services will halt the killings, made worse by the guns-and-drugs culture that rules Ramle's impoverished Arab enclave of 12,000.
"Police should be in the streets, they should be more concerned. There's no rule of law here, there are weapons and drugs. Police and social services aren't willing to take on this battle, and the first victims are women," one activist said.
She and other activists spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.