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 honour’ restored.
The woman’s alleged sin was adultery, and her killer was either her own brother or husband, security sources said. 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 hide-bound 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.”
This act has no religion – it comes from closed, tribal thinking left over from an age of ignorance
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.
“Honour killing” is a social menace that occurs throughout the Middle East, though precise figures are often elusive.
In neighbouring 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”.
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.
Palestinian female participation in the labour force stands at 17 per cent, a figure the World Bank called “abysmally low”, noting that employers appeared to favour men, among whom joblessness was almost a third lower in 2013.
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.