Inside Gaza: Who Killed the Juha Sisters?

Yehia Abu Moghaseb knew something wasn't right almost as soon as he saw the headlights. The Gaza Strip gravedigger watched from his house as two cars turned down the sloping dirt driveway of the Martyrs' Cemetery in his village of Wadi Salgah, where he works. It was almost 10 p.m. last Saturday, too late for a funeral. He walked down the hill toward the lights and found several men gathered around the hatchback of a blue and white Mitsubishi Magnum. The men were polite but a little harried. As Moghaseb looked on, they lifted three large bundles wrapped in black plastic from the back of the car, and carelessly dropped them into freshly dug pits lined with cinderblocks. They shoveled a few scoops of sand on top, before driving off into the warm Gaza night.

The gravedigger wasn't exactly sure what to do next. "There's no police," he recalled later; shortly after the Islamist Hamas organization seized power in June, Gaza's police chief, who is loyal to Fatah, suspended all civilian law enforcement. Abu Moghaseb asked a neighbor to call the Hamas-controlled "Executive Force," a network of troops composed mostly of former militants from the group's Izzedine al-Qassam militia. When the Hamas men arrived, wearing their trademark black uniforms and cradling Kalashnikovs, Abu Moghaseb helped them uncover the graves. A doctor tore open the black body bags. Inside, the gravedigger saw three young women, two of them still in their teens. "They were beautiful," he said later. "Except for the blood." Two of the girls had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest; the third had her throat cut.

Three days after the murders, I visited Abu Moghaseb at the cemetery, a small plot of sun-bleached soil and desert scrub, ringed with barbed wire. The gravedigger, who looks older than his 42 years and sports a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, told me that he has 13 children, including several daughters. The murders had been an honor killing, he explained; he says he was later told that the victims were orphans and had been working as prostitutes. A devout Muslim, Abu Moghaseb said that he has mixed feelings about the practice of honor killing and seemed to be working through his rationale while we talked. "If a woman works as a prostitute, she must be killed," he reasoned. "It will spread diseases." Still, he went on, "Our religion says not to kill," and then after another moment: "But our tradition says to kill." As we baked in the midday Gaza sun, he eventually gave up on the tortured logic. "You don't kill a girl," he told me finally, looking a little disgusted, before walking back up the hill toward his house.

Aristotle's dictum about the law—that it is reason free from passion—has never applied particularly well to the Gaza Strip. Justice here has long been a chaotic mix of logic, emotion, religion and tradition. Now that Hamas has seized control over virtually all the territory's major institutions, the equation has become even more complicated. The conventional wisdom about law and order under Hamas rule is almost entirely wrong, whether you believe the Islamists' narrative or that of their secular Fatah rivals. In the six weeks since Hamas took power, the territory has become neither a model of efficient justice, nor a repressive Taliban state ruled by Sharia (Islamic law). Still, the postrevolutionary transition period has not been an encouraging one for advocates of an independent legal system for Gaza. In a recent report, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) warned that Gaza's judiciary has faced "near paralysis" since Hamas took power. Regular Gazans like 16-year-old Nahed Juha, 19-year-old Suha Juha, and 22-year-old Lubna Juha—the three young women who ended up in body bags—are paying the price. "In the absence of law, people take the law into their own hands," says Issam Younis, the director of Gaza City's Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.

Honor killings are one of the area's most sensitive legal and moral dilemmas. They are not condoned by Sharia, but they are becoming increasingly common in lawless Gaza. Under the Palestinian criminal code, murder can carry a death sentence, usually by hanging. But according to Palestinian officials, there has never been a case when the perpetrator of an honor killing has been executed. The killers often serve little more than three years, and rarely more than seven. Neither Fatah politicians nor the Islamists in Hamas are particularly sympathetic to the victims, even in peacetime. Amid the chaotic indifference of civil war, they are even less so. In 2007 alone, there have been a dozen honor killings, according to rights groups. "There is a very clear increase in the killing of women," says Younis.

A few days after the murders, I stopped by the Gaza City office of Islam Shehwan, the spokesman for Hamas's Executive Force. He was wearing a shiny, midnight-blue dress shirt, and had his eyes glued to a television broadcasting Al-Jazeera as we spoke. A framed painting of Hamas spiritual leader Ahmad Yassin, assassinated by Israel in 2004, hung on the wall behind him. Eager to demonstrate that the Islamists were serious about law enforcement after their takeover, Shehwan told me that the Executive Force had swiftly arrested a suspect in the Juha case, a cousin of the victims, and that he was currently under interrogation. Shehwan explained that he had met with the alleged killer yesterday and claimed that the man had confessed. "He was very calm," the official told me. "He was proud of it." Still, Shehwan didn't seem particularly sympathetic to the murdered sisters. "They were prostitutes," Shehwan told me matter-of-factly. "We are good investigators. We have big files for them. We have many stories. One was taking drugs. They were caught having sexual relationships many times—more than five times." (Sharia requires four firsthand witnesses to convict a woman of prostitution; family law in Gaza is strongly influenced by Sharia, even before the Hamas takeover.) When the interrogation and investigation are finished, the man will be brought to trial in a normal criminal court, Shehwan insisted.

That could be more difficult than it sounds. At the moment, none of Gaza's roughly 45 judges are coming to work, bringing Gaza's dockets almost entirely to a halt. Hamas leaders are typically optimistic, insisting that they will eventually find a solution. A legal adviser to Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, Mohammed Ahmed Abed, told me that he predicted one third to one half of the judges would come back to work if the Islamists paid their salaries. In the meantime, Hamas leaders have established a review body—known as the Legal and Sharia Committee—to review the files of some 150 prisoners in Gaza's jails. It currently reports to a major in the Executive Force. Rights groups are concerned that any new review committees—especially those directly accountable to Islamist officers—could amount to the establishment of "alternate judicial bodies," a serious violation of the system's integrity.

Yet rights groups are equally critical of some Fatah leaders, like the Palestinian attorney general, Ahmed al-Moghani, who left Gaza for the West Bank city of Ramallah shortly after the Hamas takeover. Moghani insists that it's impossible—and illegal—for him to continue working in Gaza as long as there is no civilian police force to investigate crimes. Still, at least some human-rights advocates believe he has a duty to try; even Moghani acknowledges that Gaza's legal system is at a standstill as long as he refuses to work with Hamas. With virtually no courts operating, ordinary Palestinians are left without any kind of formal system of justice. The PCHR report demands that Moghani "fulfill his responsibilities and return to work in the Gaza Strip immediately, regardless of the political situation."

A few days after the murders, I went to see Moghani at his office in Ramallah. The Palestinian attorney general is a beefy, even-tempered man with the humorless charm of a professional bureaucrat. He told me that Executive Force militants had raided his Gaza City office during the fighting, taking all his files, including the memory cards for his computer. He complained that without a police force to protect his investigations, he can't do his job properly. "As long as [Hamas] has its grip on power, things will never go back to normal," he told me. "For me to function, I need a police force. If the police force starts working at 12 o'clock, I'll be there at 12:01."

When I asked him about the case of the Juha sisters, he grimaced and seemed almost as dismissive as his counterparts from Hamas. "Look, we have information from intelligence sources that they have been committing sins," the attorney general explained. He told me that he had taken a personal interest in the case, and ordered "forensic work" to be done on the bodies. "After the work was done, it was determined that they were not virgins," he continued. "We could detect that there were recent sexual relationships." He lifted his hands and cocked his head, as if to say: case closed. "Of course, this is not a pretext to kill them," he added. "Nobody is allowed to take the law into his own hands." The attorney general sounded very much like he was trying to convince himself.

After two days of asking around about the case, I realized that I knew almost nothing solid about the lives of the three young women. I stopped by the apartment complex where they had lived, a split-level gray cinderblock structure in the heart of Gaza City. A neighbor who identified himself as Abu Ahmad said that the three had lived alone; their father had died years before of a heart attack, an older brother had been killed as an Israeli collaborator in the 1990s, and their mother had also been murdered. "They used to talk to boys in the street," the neighbor recalled. "They used to go without a headscarf. Now we're rid of them." Relatives I visited were no more helpful or sympathetic. Not a single family member was willing to talk about the girls. Mahmoud Juha, the family mukhtar—the head of the clan—explained that he would have nothing to say about the young women or their murders. When we stopped by his home, he told my translator firmly: "I advise you not to talk to anyone else."

To Yehia Abu Moghaseb, that attitude is part of the problem. The crime should be publicized and the killers punished, the gravedigger told me, as we stood in the sun at the cemetery near where the bodies had been dumped. "We can't be silent," he went on, his voice rising slightly. "We can't cover it up." Then he was quiet. I thought of what he had told me earlier, with the simple, sound judgment of a man who has seen more than his share of bodies covered with earth: "You don't kill a girl." In the absence of law, at least there is someone in Gaza with a little common sense.