Amnesty International is gravely concerned for the safety of two Palestinian women who have not been heard from since 6 January, after the Palestinian security services in the Gaza Strip forced them back into the custody of their abusive father. Wissam al-Tawil, 24, and her sister Fatimah, 20, have faced multiple forms of violence at the hands of their father, including beatings, death threats and “interrogations”. On two occasions, the women’s father locked them in a room on the sixth floor of a residential building owned by family – the first time for 35 days.
Wissam and Fatimah had been in hiding since November 2022, following two previous failed attempts to escape their father. Just before midnight on 5 January 2023, the sisters were arrested by security services, without a warrant or any explanation, and handed over to their paternal uncle, who drove them to their father’s home in Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip. At 12.45 am on 6 January, one of the sisters sent a message to Amnesty International which read: “We are at our father’s house; he will send us over to the sixth floor in a bit. We are doomed.” They have not been heard from since.
Wissam and Fatimah have endured a raft of horrors at the hands of their father, whose violent clutches they only recently managed to escape.Heba Morayef, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa
“We are demanding proof that Wissam and Fatimah al-Tawil are alive and safe. The authorities in the Gaza Strip are obligated under Palestinian and international law to provide protection and support to anyone at risk of gender-based violence. Instead they have chosen to side with the sisters’ abuser and to expose them to further violence,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Wissam and Fatimah have endured a raft of horrors at the hands of their father, whose violent clutches they only recently managed to escape. Amnesty International previously reviewed evidence, shared by the sisters and by people close to their family, and concluded that returning them to their father would put their lives at imminent risk. Now, our worst fears have come to pass: we are gravely concerned for Wissam and Fatimah’s lives and for their safety.”
‘Interrogations’ and threats
Wissam and Fatimah al-Tawil have made several attempts to flee their father’s violence. In August 2022, the sisters were again locked in the sixth-floor room where they had previously spent more than a month. They managed to escape by jumping from a window and sought refuge at a private women’s shelter. But after just three days, the sisters were pressured into leaving the shelter by their paternal uncle, who promised them safety but instead returned them to their father’s house.
We are at our father’s house; he will send us over to the sixth floor in a bit. We are doomed.Message sent to Amnesty International on 6 January
On 9 September, Wissam and Fatimah managed to escape once more, this time seeking refuge at a government-run women’s shelter. They lived there until 12 November, when police officers forced them to leave against their will and sent them to a relative’s house. Fearing they would be returned to their father, the sisters fled and went into hiding.
The authorities in the Gaza Strip have gifted Wissam and Fatimah’s father the opportunity to carry out his threats. The sisters’ lives are in imminent danger.Heba Morayef
Wissam and Fatimah have previously told Amnesty International that their father used to hold a gun while he submitted them to hours-long “interrogations” about their activities in his absence. The sisters said they did not trust the police or the other public authorities to protect them; indeed, in September 2022, the director of the government-run women’s shelter prevented them from leaving to go to the office of the prosecutor, where they had been hoping to pursue legal action against their father.
On 15 November 2022, while Wissam and Fatimah were in hiding, Amnesty International wrote to the Ministry for Social Development and to the Ministry of Interior in Gaza. The organization demanded unconditional protection for Wissam and Fatimah al-Tawil against all forms of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, as well as assurances that the authorities in Gaza would not pressure them to return to their father’s home against their will. Amnesty International also demanded that the sisters’ freedom of movement be respected and protected.
In 2014, the State of Palestine ratified the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Palestinian authorities are obligated to protect women from violence, provide survivors with remedy, and hold perpetrators accountable.
Over the past five months, Wissam and Fatimah have shown extraordinary courage by speaking out against the violence they have endured, posting on social media and sharing powerful accounts of their plight in the media. They refused to be silent even when their father posted threats against them on his Facebook page. The sisters said they were speaking out not only for themselves, but for all women facing gender-based violence.
We are calling on the authorities to take urgent action to ensure the sisters’ immediate safety, and to protect them in the long-term.Heba Morayef
“The authorities in the Gaza Strip have gifted Wissam and Fatimah’s father the opportunity to carry out his threats, and the sisters’ lives are in imminent danger. We are calling on the authorities to take urgent action to ensure the sisters’ immediate safety, and to protect them in the long-term. It is also essential that the perpetrators of the violence they have endured are held accountable,” said Heba Morayef.
“This harrowing case illustrates how difficult it is for survivors of gender-based violence in the Gaza Strip to escape situations where their lives are in danger. We call on the authorities in Gaza to take immediate and concrete action to align their approach to domestic violence with their obligations under CEDAW. They must take proactive steps to protect women who are at risk of any form of gender-based violence, and ensure access to remedy and justice for survivors. Investigating violations is essential in order to deter other abusers, and to protect other women from the nightmare that Wissam and Fatimah are now facing.”