Conflict & Justice

Bethlehem Murder Shocks Palestinians


The spot in the Bethlehem market near where Nancy Sboun was murdered by her husband in broad daylight. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, women and human rights groups are demanding that Palestinian leaders do more to stop violence against women. The call comes in the wake of a murder in the city of Bethlehem last week that has shocked the Palestinian public. Activists hope the case will raise awareness of the problem of domestic violence.

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The victim was 28-year-old Nancy Zaboun, a mother of three young kids. Their father — Nancy's husband — is the suspected killer.

What made the murder so shocking to so many Palestinians was that it took place in the middle of the afternoon in a busy Bethlehem marketplace.

One week on, a steady stream of grim-faced visitors strolled by the scene of the crime, right in front of a women's clothing shop. They asked shopkeepers if this was really the spot where Nancy was murdered.

A young woman in a flowered headscarf grasped her cell phone nervously. She said her name is Huwaida and that she felt nauseous just standing here, because she saw everything.

"It had happened right in front of me," Huwaid said. "I saw him as he pulled her against the wall and put the knife against her neck and killed her. He slaughtered her like a sheep."

"She only screamed once. And after she died, and blood was gushing out. He stood and no one was talking to him. He was saying, 'I'm a policeman. I'm a policeman.'"

Witnesses said Nancy's 33-year-old husband — a former Palestinian police officer — waited there until he was arrested. The owner of the clothing shop said his wife and child happened to be at work with him that day. They are traumatized now.

He showed me a picture of Nancy, with a medic leaning over her, laying on the pavement with a huge pool of blood beside her. Similar photos have been making the rounds on Facebook.

Nancy's husband is now facing murder charges. Kifa'a Zaboun is Nancy's cousin. He met me in market and said the family knew that the couple was having problems.

"We had heard that he was abusing her," he said. "But not with the details that we found out later. We knew that she had asked for a divorce. And we had thought that this is the end of the problem."

Zaboun went on to say that people should be happy. If couples are not happy together, they should get a divorce, he said. The problem is, he added, Palestinian laws don't make it easy for a woman to divorce her husband.

Khawla Al-Azraq runs a women's center in Bethlehem. She told me she feels more emotionally involved in Nancy's case than any of the countless others she's come across. That's because Nancy walked into Al-Azraq's office in June. And she was dead a few weeks later.

Al-Azraq told me that Nancy kept repeating that she had just one hope. "She had one dream, to get [a] divorce from this man and to have a separate house with her children. All the time she was worried about her children. 'I don't want to leave them. I want to stay with them.' This is the one dream that all the time she [was] talking about."

Last year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed a decree to put an end to an old law on the books that allowed so-called "honor killings." That is when a relative kills a woman for bringing shame to the family name.

But Al-Araq says Abbas needs to send a much stronger message that violence against women will not be tolerated. Some say an average of one woman every month is killed by relatives. Al-Araq and others want Palestinian leaders to come up with new, tougher laws against domestic violence. And a new divorce law as well.

"To change people minds, you need hundred years," Al-Araq told me. "But …legislation, this [will] force men to think …before they kill a woman."

"If we need to wait until we do this social change, many, many women will be killed."

Activists say another problem is that Palestinians living under Israeli military rule do not have civil or family courts to handle divorce cases. Religious shari'a courts have jurisdiction over these matters.

Somoud Damiri is a prosecutor at the sharia court in Ramallah. She is well aware that women's groups criticize the religious court system for being too slow to grant divorces.

"We are a court. We have a procedures. And [women like] Nancy, she's the wife and also her husband is also a person and we also have to hear them."

"It's not our problem," Damiri said.

The prosecutor said she agrees that some laws need to be updated. But the root of the problem, she believes, is social, not legal. Women seeking to divorce an abusive husband often don't get support — especially financial support — from their relatives. So they're stuck.

Damiri said she sees it happen all the time.

"The women in Palestine haven't any financial protection," Damiri said. "This is the [biggest] problem."

Damiri said she has seen many Palestinian women go back home to live with the husbands they wanted to divorce, because their own families either can't or won't support them and their children financially.

Damiri added that the case of Nancy Zaboun has nothing to do with honor. "This was a murder," she said.

Zaboun's cousin told me that is exactly right. He said the family has written to the Palestinian president asking him to make an exception to current practice and impose the death penalty on Nancy's husband.

If justice is not done for this murder, he said, Nancy's relatives might take the law into their own hands and seek retribution against the husband and his family.