By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Most safe-houses in the Gaza Strip are meant to provide protection for armed militants on Israel's target list. Now Gaza is offering protected shelter to battered Palestinian women.
Its lone women's safe-house, opened two months ago, has had eight clients, all guarded by police from the Islamist Hamas movement that runs the enclave and enforces a conservative though not radical Muslim religious code.
So-called 'honor killings' are rare but not unknown among religious Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, and like every society it is not immune to wife-beating.
"In 2010 there was no record of killing under the motive of family honor and this is a positive development," said Huda Naeem, a Hamas lawmaker who backed the safe house as a way station for women at risk within their own families.
But feminism in Gaza is a very fragile plant.
Women in many Arab communities can be killed by zealous relatives on the slightest suspicion of having relations with a strange man. And jurists in Gaza say there is no clear clause in the Palestinian law setting out the penalty for such murders.
Islam also prohibits adultery and some Islamic teachings call for the stoning to death of offenders.
Sobheya Joma, a woman lawyer at the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), said there was no way to know for sure if honor killings were really eradicated.
"The ICHR is worried because it has recently noticed that some deaths were listed as unexplained or accidental," Joma told Reuters in her Gaza city office.
"As long as there is no investigation into these cases and
the real causes were not uncovered, you are still going to have doubts," she said.
For Palestinian women, talking openly about sexual abuse in the family is still taboo. But if it's accompanied by violence, some women can finally opt for the shelter of the safe house.
Of the eight cases of abused women now under the roof of the compound, some were minors. Other women have visited briefly and discreetly, seeking professional advice and support.
"The first case who came to us was a woman who had been subject to physical violence and was raped and then escaped from her home," said resident psychiatrist Suhad Qanita.
"We supported her psychologically ... and, thank God, eventually we were able to find her a husband."
Local human rights groups say it is the first such refuge in this Mediterranean coastal enclave. At one stage, women under risk were transferred to the other Palestinian Territory -- the West Bank -- where they could be kept safe from angry relatives.
But it is now virtually impossible for Gazans to get to the West Bank because of an Israeli blockade, which is vigorously imposed following repeated Hamas attacks on the Jewish state.
The new safe-house sits in a large compound of Gaza's Welfare Ministry, alongside a rehabilitation unit for young offenders, and presence of guards provides security reassurance.
It can shelter up to 50 women, in large, clean rooms, watched over by attendants who provide advice.
There are four women currently staying in the shelter.
One woman, ready to give birth, said she came in because of a husband who beat her.
"We hope the new baby will lead to a reconciliation with her husband," said Qanita.
Of the three others, two minors abused by members of their families had been forced into prostitution.
Qanita said she had been shocked at her new job when she came face to face with problems that were always hidden before.
"I hope this is not a widespread phenomenon, but to some extent it is worrying," she said. "There are girls who are being assaulted with impunity."
"We also try to educate families, and if a problem cannot be solved within the nuclear family we try to find an uncle or a relative ready to shelter the victim, but not in cases where a woman might be killed if returned to the family," Qanita said.
Providing aid to families and finding jobs in Gaza, where unemployment is over 40 percent according to the United Nations, are the main tools used by Welfare Ministry trying to help the enclave's 1.5 million people cope with a crippled economy.
Empowering women to speak up against abuse is tougher.
Women will tolerate physical and mental abuses in the family without bringing formal complaints, simply in order to safeguard the integrity of the home, said Naeem, who is one of just a handful of Hamas female lawmakers.
But women subjected to repeated sexual abuse are starting to seek outside help. Some go to police stations, others to tribal chiefs in what she said was a sign of growing public awareness.
Gaza might remain largely cut off from the outside world because of the Israeli blockade, but rooftop groves of satellite dishes indicate that modernity -- or the ideas of radical Islam elsewhere in the Arab world -- cannot be kept out.
"Opening the safe house has been a good step in the right direction, Everyday we are seeing a growing awareness amongst local people," said psychiatrist Qanita.
"The taboos are starting to crumble," she added.
(Editing by Douglas Hamilton)