RAMLE, ISRAEL — Hamda Abu Ghanem feared for her life, but there was no one to protect her. Shortly after returning home from a battered women's shelter, she was shot to death while she slept -- the ninth woman in her clan killed for allegedly dishonoring the family.
The 19-year-old's crime: speaking to a man in secret.
Now, Hamda's sisters are in hiding, the chief witness to the slaying is missing and Arab women in this central Israeli town live in fear -- caught between an unforgiving tradition that allows little contact between the sexes, a community afflicted by violence and drugs, and little government intervention.
Several of Hamda's relatives and friends took the rare step of speaking to a reporter about the terrifying world in which they live -- a world in which a woman's life can be taken with impunity by a male relative.
Her grieving mother adds a silent testimony -- wounds she has inflicted on her own flesh to mirror the places she says her own son's bullets pierced Hamda. According to U.N. statistics, more than 5,000 women and girls die worldwide each year in "honor killings." Suspicion, not proof, rules. Islam forbids the practice, but powerful conservative Arab tradition allows it.
Last year, eight women were victims in Israel's Arab community of 1.4 million people, women's groups said.
But although honor killings aren't uncommon here, nine in one clan is unprecedented.
Police encourage women to go to shelters, try to bring suspects to prosecution, and attempt to enlist the help of community leaders, said Limor Gueta, a spokeswoman for Ramle police district.
But "there aren't enough police in order to give the services we should give," Gueta said.
A wall of voiceless witnesses only makes things harder, police said.
Also a factor: Police and the Ramle municipality do not have a program to prevent the killings -- proof, activists say, that violence against Arab women isn't taken seriously.
"Honor killings aren't a priority," said Aida Touma, director of Women Against Violence, which sets up shelters.
"At the very least it's a subconscious form of racism that holds, 'They are Arabs, that's their culture and tradition. They kill their women,' " she said.
Only two men have been arrested in the nine Abu Ghanem slayings in the last 11 years, and only one was convicted, because families destroyed evidence and lied to police, said a spokesman for national police, Micky Rosenfeld.
"This is a code, and nobody is willing to break it," said Guerta.
Hamda's older sister, Sahar, has begun speaking out against her powerful, armed clan, at the risk of her own life, fleeing to a secret location with her six children after Hamda died.
"I want to break this wall of silence, I want to stop honor killings," she said by telephone.
Relatives say Hamda's brother Kamil gunned her down on Jan. 16. He is now in prison, and police say they intend to press murder charges.
"Hamda died for nothing," Sahar said. "She was honorable. The people who killed her have no honor."
Abu Ghanem vigilante justice is well known in Ramle. One cousin, Reem, was drugged by a brother and thrown in a well after refusing to marry the man her family chose. Reem's mother, Nayfa, was stabbed to death. Another woman "slipped" in the bathroom and died of her injuries. Others were gunned down or stabbed to death.
"We Abu Ghanem women are all waiting to die," Sahar said.
Hamda was hospitalized three times after Kamil beat her. She explained away the injuries, saying she fell down the stairs -- a lie her mother encouraged.
"Kamil was very jealous -- he'd go crazy when neighborhood men told him they saw his sisters," Imameh said.
After the last hospitalization, Hamda complained to police and fled to a shelter. Kamil was jailed.
But she came home when she turned 18, knowing she may be killed, but figuring she couldn't live in the shelter forever.
Soon after she returned, her brother was released, and Hamda was shot nine times in her bed. "I am the mother of a murdered woman and her murderer," her mother, Imameh, told an Arabic newspaper.
She showed gashes and welts she inflicted on her arms and stomach after her daughter died.
Abu Ghanem women and community activists have little faith that police and municipal social services will halt the killings, made worse by the guns-and-drugs culture that rules Ramle's impoverished Arab enclave of 12,000.