Intifada Put Aside in Slaying of Two Girls

Two child murders in Israel pushed all else off the Israeli news. The intifada, next month’s elections, the souring economy and soaring poverty levels, all were forgotten by a country obsessed with the almost simultaneous disappearance of two girls in Jerusalem — one Jewish, the other Arab.

Massive searches by police and thousands of volunteers were conducted throughout the cold days and colder nights following the disappearances of the two girls.

On Dec. 10, the body of Hodaya Kedem Pimstein, a 22-month-old Jewish toddler, was discovered in a shallow grave in the Jerusalem woods. On Dec. 13, police had planned to distribute 15,000 fliers with a picture of 5-year-old Nur Abu Tir to Arabs arriving for Friday prayers, but before they could act, her body was found at the bottom of drainage pit in her village.

There was no connection between the murders. But in Israel, nothing is free of the interface between Arab and Jew. In a society where hundreds of Arab and Jewish children have lost their lives, killed at the other’s hands in the last two years of the intifada, the case created pockets of cooperation between the warring groups.

The disappearance of Nur while playing outside her East Jerusalem village home galvanized a search by thousands of Israeli police and volunteers. A police helicopter scanned the terrain near Nur’s village, but it hovered close by, to avoid wandering into a nearby area controlled by the Palestinian Authority and risk being shot down by snipers.

Israeli policemen, in the last two years perceived as enemy intruders, converged on Nur’s village, scouring the streets with specially trained German shepherds sniffing for her traces. Suspicions in Nur’s murder centered on the child as victim of a feud between family clans.

A Palestinian laborer working illegally in Israel gave police the key tip that led to finding Hodaya’s body and catching her killer.

On Dec. 7 Hodaya’s distraught father reported his daughter missing. The child of separated parents, she was spending the weekend with him. He reported that he had left Hodaya in the living room watching television; when he came back a few minutes later, she was gone.

During the ensuing days of intensive searching, the father gave numerous interviews to the media, appearing on television in tearful appeals to find his child. Hodaya’s photo and photos of her parents plastered the front pages of every newspaper and were shown on television broadcasts in the country.

A Palestinian laborer, whose work in Israel had been rendered illegal due to an expired work permit, saw the photos. The previous week, walking through a wooded area, he had noticed a man digging a hole between the trees. On Dec. 10, he identified the father as the man he had seen, and after receiving assurances he would not be penalized, led searchers to the site.

Within hours, Hodaya’s body had been dug up. Her father was arrested and confessed to drowning the girl in the bathtub and then burying her. Authorities said the murder was plotted a month earlier to hurt the child’s mother.

So far apart are the Israelis and Palestinians that their identical misfortune prompted no communication between the girls’ families. The situation illustrates the huge gap between people who live just hundreds of yards apart.

A newly published survey of Israelis and Palestinians by the well-respected international dispute resolution organization, Common Ground, reveals that the main gap between the two groups is not ideology but mistrust. Although 70 percent of both groups would be amenable to a political compromise, neither Palestinians nor Israelis give the other side credit for good will.

But the parallel child murders did generate some exceptional, if small, gestures. While both girls were still missing, Hodaya’s mother said tearfully to the press, "Maybe Nur and Hodaya are together now, a symbol of two peoples who must finally end their hostility."

Nur’s family received a solidarity visit by a Jewish father, whose own daughter perished this year in a Palestinian terrorist incident. Bearing sandwiches and commiseration, the man said, "I know what it is to lose a daughter."

The Palestinian governor of the nearby Bethlehem region appealed to Arab residents and Palestinian security officials to aid in the search for Hodaya. And the Palestinian worker who solved Hodaya’s murder said he sought no reward: "If I need to get any paycheck, I will get it from God."

In life there was no connection between Hodaya and Nur. Had they lived out their days to mature, have families and grow old in Jerusalem, the girls almost certainly would never have met. Only their untimely brutal deaths created a bond between them.

Helen Schary Motro, an American writer and lawyer living in Israel, teaches at the Tel Aviv University law school.