RAMALLAH: Residents of this West Bank town say the shooting deaths of three Palestinian women in the Gaza Strip last month were "honor killings." The corpses of the women - Ibtissam Mohammad Musallam Abu Qeinas, 31; Samira Tahani Debeiky, 45; and Amani Khamis Hosari, 40 - were found within a 24-hour period in Beit Lahiya and Gaza City, leaving residents shocked.
"People are saying it was an honor killing, that the women were of loose morals. They were not related to one another - but they were all killed in the same way. It's really shocking," Mona Shawa, director of the women's unit at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, said.
In 2006, 17 Palestinian women were reported killed in so-called honor crimes - 12 in the Gaza Strip and five in the occupied West Bank.
"The general atmosphere here in Gaza is encouraging this," Shawa said.
"There is no respect for law, no punishment of criminals and everyone has a gun."
Soraida Abdel-Hussein, a researcher at the Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in Ramallah, uses the word "femicide" to describe the killings.
She told IRIN that Palestinian society is undergoing radical change as a result of the daily violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and women are suffering as a result.
"Being under oppressive occupation gives you a feeling of low self-esteem, of being less intelligent, less powerful, less of everything," she said.
"That hits the masculine identity - and women pay the price. Men internalize the values of violence. They replicate the roles of occupier and victim. It will become part of the culture - part of how you see people and they see you. We are now at the stage where it is radically changing our society and structures."
The number of "femicide" cases is not known because they often go unreported.
In a report last year, Human Rights Watch criticized the Palestinian authorities for not doing enough to protect women and said the conflict with Israel and an international economic embargo were no excuse.
Article 340 of Jordanian Penal Law, in force in the West Bank, rules that a man who kills or attacks his wife or a female relative while she is committing adultery is exempt from punishment. In Gaza, the Egyptian penal code also provides lenient sentences.
"This law does not apply if the woman finds a man committing an affair - because the woman herself is the honor," said Hussein.
But raising awareness on "femicide" is a sensitive issue, Hussein said, because criticizing the society plays into the hands of those who claim Arab culture is primitive and violent.
"At the same time, we are under occupation - so should we be fighting against the occupiers or our husbands?"
Dr. Miriam Saleh, the Palestinian minister of women's affairs, said Palestinians themselves could decide on a change.
"Our main priority is to face occupation. When we have an independent state, we will put the law before the people to decide," Saleh said. - IRIN