The way prosecutors tell it, Muhammad Harouf invited Michal Halimi to a beach on the Israeli coast not far from the popular Yamit Water Park.
Harouf, a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Nablus, and Halimi, an Israeli Jew, both 29, strolled to a secluded spot that afternoon in May. There, Harouf strangled her. Then he threw two cement bricks on her head and hid her body in the sand, under a discarded tire.
Halimi’s body was found two months later in dunes not far from the water park, in the city of Holon, where Harouf worked as a gardener and handyman.
He has been charged with killing Halimi, a cosmetician who lived in the West Bank settlement of Adam with her husband, Aharon Halimi. She was pregnant when she died.
Police say Harouf, who is in custody awaiting trial, and Halimi were lovers. The case, an instance in which a taboo against intimacy between Israelis and Palestinians appears to have been broken, has captivated many Palestinians and Israelis.
Fifty thousand links to articles about the case appear when Michal Halimi’s name is placed into a Hebrew-language Google search. Many posts on social media question why a Jewish woman would date a Palestinian.
The idea of an Israeli-Palestinian romance has been such a sensitive topic that Israel’s ministry of education in 2015 decided against including the novel “Borderlife” in the advanced literature high school curriculum.
The book by Dorit Rabinyan tells the semiautobiographical story of an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man who meet and fall in love in New York before breaking up when they return to their fractured homelands. A ministry official said it would not be on the recommended reading list because mixed relationships “are seen by large portions of society as a threat to the separate identities of Arabs and Jews.”
Such rare relationships take place against a backdrop of the long-time conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and the stalled prospects for peace through a two-state solution. Tension between the sides has included violent attacks and retaliations as well as disagreement on issues such as Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which many countries have warned was hurting chances for peace.
In the criminal case involving Harouf and Halimi, Israeli State Attorney Raed Anuz early this month described at a court hearing what authorities believe happened.
According to police, Harouf and Halimi met each other via social media as teenagers about 12 years ago and had recently embarked on an affair. At one juncture, police say, Halimi left her husband and moved in with Harouf in Nablus.
On May 11, Harouf, who went by Hamudi, a nickname meaning “sweetie” both in Arabic and in Hebrew, posted a picture of himself holding a smiling Michal Halimi in a close embrace, adding a Facebook life event: Engaged.
Police say Harouf decided to kill Halimi after she informed him that she was pregnant and planned to return to her husband. She had announced her pregnancy on her Facebook page May 24:
“I’m already in love with you, peanut,” she wrote.
On May 28, Harouf and Halimi were near the water park.
Despite what authorities say, Harouf and Halimi’s family insist there was no romance.
Halimi’s husband, Aharon Halimi, told police that when his wife went missing, he initially assumed she had gone to her parents' home.
Police, however, found a letter in which Michal Halimi informed her husband that she was leaving him. At about the same time he told police that his wife had not returned home, Aharon Halimi also called Yad L’Achim, an Israeli organization that opposes Jewish-Muslim liaisons.
Halimi’s family and friends say police invented the story of a love affair to cover up a poor investigation and keep the death from appearing terrorism-related.
“They have an interest in this story being romantic and not nationalistic,” Aharon Halimi said in an interview, using the term for ideologically driven terrorist attacks.
He said his wife “befriended the murderer as a victim. She was looking for someone who would talk to her and listen to her, but he took advantage and raped her.”
Authorities have not charged Harouf with rape or indicated they suspect Halimi was sexually assaulted.
During a recent arraignment, Harouf denied ever having been romantically involved with Michal Halimi and told the judge he had wanted to kidnap her and then exchange her for Palestinian prisoners. Leaving the courtroom, he kicked a guard and yelled “I’ll kill all the Jews!”
Israeli media this month reported that Harouf’s brother Abdullah Harouf, a member of a Nablus-area cell of Islamic Jihad, was sentenced in 2012 to 12 years in an Israeli prison for attempting to plant explosive devices.
Sarah Ben, a childhood friend of Aharon Halimi who has served as an informal spokeswoman for him since the death became public, also said there was never a romance between Michal Halimi and Mohammed Harouf.
“When you know someone at age 17, and when you meet again years later, his ideology can change,” she said. “The murderer had a clear motive, to free Palestinian prisoners and to exploit Michal for this issue.”
Speaking with the Israeli outlet Walla News, Halimi’s mother, Gita Zilberman, said Israeli authorities know her daughter was killed as an act of pro-Palestinian terrorism but invented a romance because “the state doesn’t want Michal’s murderer to be recognized as a nationalist murderer and his family to receive budgets and assistance from the Palestinian Authority.”
The Palestinian Authority pays monthly stipends to people considered “martyrs” serving time in Israeli jails and to their families. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month passed the Taylor Force Act, which asks “all donor countries” to “cease direct budgetary support until the Palestinian Authority stops all payments incentivizing terror.”
And the Israeli government provides financial compensation to victims of recognized terrorist attacks, a status for which the Israeli public has enormous sympathy.
Israel police and the state prosecutor maintain that Michal Halimi’s slaying was a criminal offense and not terrorism-related.
Meanwhile, Michal Halimi was buried Aug. 2 in the Israeli city of Rehovot, where her parents live.
Rabbi Shmuel Lifschitz, a spokesman for Yad L’Achim, said the question remains: If Michal Halimi did not have an affair with Harouf, why was one of Aharon Halimi’s first calls to an organization that “assists women in distress due to marriage with Arabs?”
“Yes, she was married to her husband, but in the background there was an old relationship, and it was rekindled,” Lifschitz said. “That’s the truth.”
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.