Murder, they ignored (JERUSALEM POST) By KHALED ABU TOAMEH 12/19/02)
JERUSALEM POST Articles-Index-Top
Stories that cast Palestinian society in a negative light, or divert
attention from the war with Israel, are routinely downplayed by Arab
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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