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Murder, they ignored (JERUSALEM POST) By KHALED ABU TOAMEH 12/19/02)Source: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/A/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1040273581810 JERUSALEM POST JERUSALEM POST Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
Stories that cast Palestinian society in a negative light, or divert attention from the war with Israel, are routinely downplayed by Arab media

Just as the police were preparing last Friday to distribute 10,000 pamphlets asking the public to assist in the search for Nur Abu-Tir, the body of the six-year-old girl was discovered deep inside a drainage pit near her family´s home in Umm Tuba, a tiny village on the southern rim of Jerusalem.

"What a tragedy," exclaimed a senior Jerusalem police officer who coordinated the search operations for Nur. "We were hoping that the leaflets carrying Nur´s picture would wake up the Arab residents of the city and solve the mystery."

Most of the fliers were supposed to be handed out on the Temple Mount after the Friday prayers, when tens of thousands of Muslims converge on the compound. The decision to print the leaflets was made after police investigators discovered that many Jerusalem Arabs were simply unaware of the drama unfolding in Umm Tuba.

A police officer involved in the investigation says he literally had to beg the editors of the east Jerusalem-based daily al-Quds, the largest Palestinian newspaper, to run a story on the missing girl, hoping that publication would help.

The next morning, the officer was stunned to read a brief news item in the Palestinian newspaper entitled, "Israeli police searching for missing Jewish and Arab girls." Not only did the editors refrain from publishing the girl´s picture, but they also failed to dispatch a reporter to the family´s home, as most Israeli newspapers and TV stations did.

Not surprisingly, al-Quds and the rest of the Palestinian Authority- controlled newspapers chose to take Nur´s story from international news agencies or the Israeli media. By last Tuesday, when Nur was buried, not a single representative from the Arab media had visited the family.

Asked to explain the behavior of the Palestinian journalists, one of the editors says that the Arab media generally avoid dealing with "sensitive" issues, especially those related to local crime.

"First, journalists are afraid to cover stories which could get them into trouble," the editor explains.

"Second, most of our journalists believe that this is not the right time to deal with stories that might reflect negatively on the Palestinians. As far as they are concerned, stories about crime, especially murder, should not be given prominence, or even published, because they weaken the spirit of the people and defame our society. "Third, there is the group of lazy and unprofessional journalists who haven´t the slightest idea about the role the media play. These are journalists who spend most of their time interviewing senior [PA] officials by phone and do their utmost to appease them. They only care about their salaries at the end of the month and their positions."

The Israeli police officer has a different explanation.

"Although I agree with most of the editor´s reasoning, the basic problem lies with the attitude of Arab society to the value of life," he adds. "It´s sad to say, but my impression is that this society, which is violent by nature, isn´t that much moved by the kidnapping or gruesome killing of an innocent girl. It´s a cultural issue that demonstrates the wide gap between Western civilization and Arab traditions.

"Take, for instance, the manner in which the Israeli media covered the story of Hodaya Kedem, the toddler from Kiryat Hayovel, and the way the Palestinian newspapers dealt with the case of Nur.

"Almost everyone in Israel followed the sensational coverage of the Hodaya case through newspapers and TV reports, while the Palestinian media continued to focus on the activities and statements of Yasser Arafat and his senior officials. Why is a story about Arafat receiving a message of solidarity from a students´ union in Vietnam more important than the story of Nur? Israelis all over the country had the chance to read about Nur and see her pictures, while people in east Jerusalem hardly knew about the case."

INSIDE UMM Tuba, home to some 3,000 people, the story of indifference is similar. Villagers point out that Nur´s father, Ahmed, has a record of getting into trouble. A former construction contractor, the father is said to have run into financial problems, forcing him to sell some of his tractors and other equipment. According to one theory, the father´s former business partners, residents of a West Bank town near Hebron, are linked to the abduction and killing of the little girl. But this is an angle that has been ruled out by investigators working hard to crack the case.

The fact that the murdered girl´s body was found in a drainage pit used only by her family and other close relatives suggests that the perpetrator - or perpetrators - are from the immediate circle of the Abu-Tirs.

From Day 1, says another police officer on the case, there was something fishy about the behavior of the family members. Nur´s parents, who were questioned for several hours almost on a daily basis, were extremely "miserly" when it came to answering questions. Other family members taken in for interrogation simply refused to answer most questions.

"They hardly said anything," the investigator recalls. "Whenever we asked them about a certain thing, they would say that they don´t know anything. Today we know that they weren´t telling us the truth when they claimed that they didn´t know many things."

Believing it´s only a matter of time before the mystery is solved, the police officer says that the investigation has shed a light on the closed world of strictly conservative families. Rape, incest, unfaithfulness, lies, assault, and intimidation are only parts of the accepted norm. And the name of the game is: "All stays in the family."

"The more we dug, the worse the smell became," he adds. "It´s interesting to see that so much crime is taking place and no one ever thinks about involving the authorities. Everything is settled within the family and behind closed doors. Rapists go unpunished thanks to the tribal system according to which a sulha [see box] is held between the offender and his victim. These people don´t believe in the police or judicial system. They behave according to their own codes."

In the first few days after Nur (Arabic for "light") went missing, the police encountered difficulty in recruiting volunteers from Umm Tuba and nearby villages to participate in the searches. Senior police officers repeatedly met with representatives of the villages´ clans and urged them to call on people to join the searches. The appeal attracted only a few volunteers.

"People in Umm Tuba were certain from the first day that Nur was killed because of long-standing and ongoing disputes in her clan," says Ahmed Abu-Tir, a distant relative.

"Her family has been involved in numerous disputes with relatives, particularly over money and sex. That´s why Nur´s disappearance came as no surprise to most of the people here. Almost every week there is a sulha in the village following a quarrel or melee."

Another relative, Ali Abu-Tir, a retired mathematics teacher, argues that the talk about unresponsiveness is exaggerated. The murder, he says, has sent shock waves throughout Umm Tuba and neighboring villages.

"It´s a disaster and nothing justifies the brutal and merciless killing of a young girl, whether she is Jewish or Muslim or Christian," he emphasizes. "When I heard that they found the Jewish baby [Hodaya] I couldn´t hold back my tears. What kind of a father is this who murders his baby in a bathtub? Even animals don´t behave in this way.

"If we had a proper Islamic state here, he would be executed. The Koran specifically forbids the killing of little girls when it says, ´And if the buried girl is asked, by what sin were you killed.´ [A reference to a pre-Islamic practice dating back to the Jahiliya, or ignorance, era when families used to bury newborn girls alive out of shame]," he says.

"Some police officers were disappointed that most people ignored their calls to join the searches. They told me that this is proof that Arabs don´t care about their children. I want to tell them that this is not true. We love our children and we don´t want to see them harmed in any way. "But people are afraid of being seen as taking sides in a family feud. Look at the great damage this case has done to our children. Since the discovery of Nur´s body on Friday, many of the children in the village are too scared to walk out of their homes."

THE NAME of Umm Tuba first came into the spotlight in 1997 when several families complained that their lands had been confiscated for the building of the nearby neighborhood of Har Homa. Some of the villagers accused "collaborators" of selling land to Israelis, enabling the government to go ahead with plans to build the Jewish neighborhood. Others, who went to court against the expropriation of the land, lost after failing to provide authentic title deeds proving their ownership.

Although the work in Har Homa is proceeding, villagers in Umm Tuba have chosen not to stand in the way. The village has always maintained good relations with Jewish neighbors in Gilo and Kibbutz Ramat Rahel and many of its sons are employed in the industrial area of Talpiot.

Like most of the villagers in Umm Tuba, Nur´s family say they have no complaints against the police, who worked virtually around the clock to find the missi ng girl. Many are even grateful. "The police did a great job," says Zuhair Hamdan, one of the mukhtars (headmen) of the nearby village of Sur Bahir. "But now we want the police to step up their efforts to catch the murderer. We believe that the police have the tools and will solve the case, just as they did with Hodaya Kedem. If they can´t achieve results, they should hand the case over to the Shin Bet, which, I´m confident, has more experience in solving murders."

Hamdan, who is expected to play a major role in organizing a sulha between Nur´s family and the family of the murderer after the case is solved, says that he too was disappointed that many people didn´t join the searches.

"I blame the Arab media for turning a blind eye to the story," he adds. "The Israeli media gave extensive coverage to the case of Nur while the Palestinian newspapers were busy telling us what Arafat and Nabil Shaath did or said. These newspapers, which are worse than the newspapers in the Arab countries, should be closed down because they serve only Arafat and his aides and not the readers."

Last Tuesday, Nur´s body was handed over to the family after undergoing an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Some 500 people from Umm Tuba and the surrounding villages of Sur Bahir and Jebl Mukaber braved torrential rains to attend the funeral. Children were kept away and women watched from balconies and windows as the body was carried from the mosque to the small cemetery.

It was an unusually quiet funeral with many chain-smoking men. But the looks in the eyes of most of the mourners said it all: Why did such a small and beautiful girl have to die in such a violent and ruthless way?

Cracking the case - By Wednesday, the police were still searching for possible leads in the murder of Nur Abu-Tir. A gag order issued by the Jerusalem Magistrate´s Court at the request of the Jerusalem police prevents the publication of any details related to the investigation. Several members of the girl´s family, including the father, were taken into custody shortly after the discovery of the body, but all were released within a short period.

Initially, the police believed that Nur might have been a hit-and-run victim, killed by a car while she was walking in a dark alleyway near her home. The driver, who may not have had proper insurance and license documents, panicked and decided to dump the body somewhere around the village. But this theory has been excluded after the body, wrapped in a plastic bag, was found just meters away from the family home.

Police are now focusing on the possibility that the girl was a victim of a dispute between her family and relatives from the same clan.

"The investigation is at its peak and we will spare no effort to lay our hands on the perpetrators," a police official said. The investigation is being conducted on different levels, especially the intelligence level, the official added. "I believe we will solve the mystery in the near future."

And now, the ´sulha´

It´s only a matter of time before the police apprehend the murderer (or murderers) of Nur Abu-Tir. But the tragic affair will not come to an end with the incarceration and subsequent trial of the perpetrators.

Away from the official court proceedings, strenuous efforts will take place to arrange a reconciliation, or sulha, between the family of the victim and the family of the murderer.

Sulha is thousands of years old and predates Islam. Used particularly in Muslim society, it remains a popular and successful method of resolving conflicts out of court. Thousands of cases, ranging from theft to murder, have been solved through the sulha system in east Jerusalem over the past decades. The practice is particularly common among families which originated from the Hebron district and villagers living around Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem police, which in the past regarded the phenomenon as a threat to the rule of law, are now encouraging Arab dignitaries to get involved in arranging sulhas.

The objectives of sulha have remained the same throughout the centuries: restoration of peaceful relationships between individuals, families, family groups and villages, and the redressing of grievances between rival parties.

When a serious crime has been committed, the family of the offender resorts to a third party, asking for mediation. A group of elders is quickly dispatched to the victim´s family to see what its demands are in order to prevent revenge. The delegation of mediators is known as Jaha.

The Jaha often makes several visits to the victim´s family before obtaining consent. Consent takes place only when the family declares, before witnesses, that they entrust the case to the Jaha and will accept its ruling.

By accepting the Jaha, the offended family sets the ground for the sulha process, called hudna, or truce. The hudna usually lasts three to six months, with the understanding that the offended family will not retaliate.

Likewise, the offender´s family promises to avoid contacting or confronting members of the victim´s family. Hudna is therefore considered an act of humility, demonstrating repentance and a willingness to make peace.

The next stage is atwa, a "bail bond" paid during the truce period to the victim´s family. The atwa could be a sum of money, or the offended family may ask for a verbal pledge of honor from the offender´s family.

The Jaha is then expected to decide on an appropriate ruling. If the case involves a killing or serious injury, the delegation demands the payment of redemption money, or diyya. The diyya is seen as a symbolic compensation given to the offended family to "honor" the victim´s blood, which, according to Arab tradition, is priceless and irreplaceable.

After all these elements have been completed, the Jaha finally holds the formal sulha ritual. Tradition requires that true peace be made openly, and so the sulha ceremony is regularly held in the late morning at a gathering of family members, and as many guests as possible, all overseen by the Jaha.

It is critical that the members of both families all eat together, as this signifies the reversal of the original tragedy - new friendships. The sulha "menu" usually consists of lamb and rice. (© 1995-2002, The Jerusalem Post 12/19/02)

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