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Group says Palestinian women victims of societal violence

Activists say state doesn't protect

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- A new report presents an alarming picture of the abuse of women in the Palestinian territories, with police, courts, and government agencies failing to treat violence such as rape and beatings as crimes.

Human Rights Watch cited practices such as rape victims being forced to marry assailants, and light sentences for men who kill female relatives suspected of adultery. In a report released Tuesday , the rights group said families, tribal leaders and authorities, backed by tradition and discriminatory laws, often sacrifice victims' interests for "family honor."

And the problem is getting worse with growing poverty and lawlessness in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the New York-based group said.

The report comes about a year after a Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics survey of more than 4,000 households found 23 percent of women said they experienced domestic violence, but 1 percent had filed a complaint. Two-thirds said they were subjected to psychological abuse at home.

Human Rights Watch urged the Palestinian president, parliament, and government ministries to make protection of women a top priority. The group said more can be done despite the conflict with Israel and the cash crisis in the Palestinian Authority brought on by the rise to power of the Islamic militant group Hamas.

"The main failing of the system is the failure to treat violence against women as a crime and to address it accordingly," researcher Lucy Mair said. "We want to say you can take some positive steps and it's imperative to provide protection to more women."

Mair said Human Rights Watch studied the Palestinian territories -- rather than investigating abuses in other traditional societies -- because some Palestinian officials had signaled they were ready for change.

"This made us optimistic we have something to work with," she said.

Commenting on the report, Adnan Amr, a legal adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas, agreed Palestinian authorities are "weak" in enforcing the law, but blamed "the security and political situation we have been through over the past two years."

"All Palestinians, not only women, are paying a heavy price for the chaos," Amr said, referring to struggles between rival Palestinian groups.

Human Rights Watch's report, based on dozens of interviews with victims, social workers, lawyer s , and police chiefs in the West Bank and Gaza, said abusers in the Palestinian territories are granted virtual immunity.

Rapists who marry their victims are not prosecuted, it said, and such deals often are arranged by the families, tribal leaders, and police.

Even those assigned to protect the victims often push for such an outcome. The director of the West Bank's only shelter for teenage girls is quoted as saying she arranged five such marriages in her six-year tenure.

Palestinian law is lenient with men who kill female relatives because they committed adultery. It also bars rape and incest victims from having abortions. Rape within marriage is not considered a crime, the report said.

Women's fates are increasingly determined by tribal leaders or Palestinian Authority-appointed governors, rather than the overloaded courts. The informal justice system often is arbitrary and biased against victims, Human Rights Watch said.

Victims often are afraid to come forward because of social stigma, the perceived futility of complaining, and fear of inviting retribution by relatives, the report said.

Manal Kleibo, a lawyer at the Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in Ramallah, told the Associated Press that she has detected a change in some attitudes in recent years, saying authorities are increasingly willing to work with her group.

For example, growing numbers of police officers are attending workshops on how to handle sexual abuse cases, she said. Some families no longer force daughters to marry rapists, she said, citing the case of a 14-year-old girl taken to a secret shelter in the West Bank with her family's support.

Hanan Ashrawi, an independent legislator, expressed doubt that Human Rights Watch's call for a repeal of laws that discriminate against women will go anywhere .

"We don't have a majority for reforms on these issues," she said.

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