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"An eye for an eye?"
By Hilary Leila Krieger
with additional reporting by Gur Salomon
On Tuesday, October 15, eight-year-old Ra'afat Sleem was killed by a Jerusalem Arab who slashed his throat as he made his way through the Old City near Herod's Gate. The boy's death hit his community of 300 Gypsy families hard. "I can't believe that it happened to him. It's a very big tragedy in the community right now," says Amoun Sleem, Ra'afat's cousin. They've opened up a big gate to hell for this community," she said, noting that children are afraid to go to school and parents are also worried. But an even bigger concern is that his death will spark a cycle of revenge killings between the Gypsy and Arab communities in the Old City.
With the help of local witnesses to the killing, police arrested Amin Jouisi, 28, at his brother's home in the A-Tur neighborhood of east Jerusalem. According to police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby, Jouisi confessed to the murder and related to officers that "something told [me] to kill the child." He's currently undergoing psychiatric evaluation. The criminal justice system can arrest and imprison perpetrator, but "we have a much bigger problem after that, because the families become rivals and want revenge," explained Deputy Police Chief Ofer Ganon. As in the Arab community, the Gypsies have a history of conducting revenge killings that dates from their founding mythology, which explains how the ethnic group originally from India was dispersed to places in the Middle East and Europe, including Jerusalem, because of a blood feud between two tribes. Amoun called on community leaders to "bring peace inside the city." She believes this could be accomplished by jailing Jouisi for life and having his family move beyond the Old City's walls. That way, Ra'afat's parents "won't have to see the family that killed their child in front of their faces."
A community group, the Jerusalem Bridging Committee, has already met to try to resolve the dispute peacefully. The first round of such meetings over Ra'afat's death took place last Friday. Family members pledged peace at least until the next meeting when they will continue attempts at a compromise. Such compromises often involve financial payment from the family of the perpetrator to that of the victim. Several informal groups of community arbiters exist in east Jerusalem, but the Bridging Committee enjoys the support of the Israeli police. The committee's attempts to resolve disputes peacefully and prevent revenge killings have until now focused primarily on the greater Arab community in Jerusalem. The Gypsies, though culturally distinct, speak Arabic, are predominantly Muslim, and are willing to work to diffuse the situation with the Arab leaders who sit on the committee. "We take care of all people," said Siam Hussein Abu-Jamil, the mukhtar(traditional Arab community leader) who heads the 72-person Bridging Committee. "We sit with everyone." The committee could indeed rule that the perpetrator's family leave the Old City as Sleem desires. Though the police give their backing to the Bridging Committee, they don't concern themselves with the specific resolutions arranged by the parties. Such arrangements take place in addition to criminal prosecution by the police. "It's a decision made between the families," Ganon said. "we're not interested in the solution. If it brings peace and quiet, the police have no problem."
Given the closed nature of Arab society, Israeli police officials said they can be more effective at limiting crime and conflict if local community leaders intervene in concert with officers. "With the police in the background, it gives the [Arab leaders] more power and more legitimacy," Ganon said, noting, "We understand and they understand that if we cooperate with each other, the better things are for the people in east Jerusalem." "Our basic function is to prevent any additional killings, because this can very easily spill into an unending cycle of revenge killings," Abu-Jamil explained of the Bridge Committee. "Naturally as far as the police are concerned, they blessed this kind of initiative because it means they don't have to step in and settle disputes. Unlike disputes between Jews, disputes between Arabs can get violent and even involve weapons," he said. "It saves [the police] a lot of time, manpower, and money."
The committee itself "began growing once we began receiving help from the police. The police gave us the jurisdiction and authority to solve different problems in the field without its involvement," he added. Some people, though, said the committee is a way for the police to shirk their obligations and farm out their work to others. "The Israeli police have a tradition of neutralizing responsibility," said Nadera Fhalhoub Kevorkian, a professor of ciminology at the Hebrew University and herself an Old City resident. "They're saying 'let them [the Arab community] do it.'" "If there were a situation of revenge killings in east Jerusalem, do you think the police would know what's going on?" she asked. "The layman believes that Israelis aren't interested in stopping crimes. They're just interested in the security situation."
According to Abu-Jamil, the police became involved at the committee's request, which was itself set up four years ago to counter-act similar Palestinian Authority committees which follow a long tradition of local leadership informally resolving neighborhood disputes. Abu-Jamil said the PA committee also offered to prevent revenge killings by charging families for the service and resolving disputes by finding the favor of whichever party paid them more. According to him, residents were afraid and felt compelled to follow these committees because some who complained to Israeli authorities were kidnapped and beaten up.
Hatem Abzel Kader, who represents east Jerusalem in the PA's Palestinian Legislative Council, said "We are helping the people. We are working in the light, not in the darkness." Abu-Jamil and seven other local leaders unhappy with the situation decided to establish uncorrupted committees to help the community--though not everyone's convinced these committees have totally clean hands. When people visited them instead of PA arbiters, the latter began to lose some of thier revenue. "Naturally the new committee members began receiving threats from the PA committee and some were even detained," Abu-Jamil said. Because of harassment, "we didn't have any choice and we decided to call for a meeting with the Jerusalem police. "After a number of meetings, the district commander decided to assist this particular committee, to strengthen it, to make it more relevant, on one condition: that this committee not receive a single dime from anyone, that it assist out of its own will," Abu-Jamil said. He continued, "Since this committee had the backing of the police, [people] felt they no longer had to be afraid." As a result, the committee began to oversee more and more cases.
Abu-Jamil said the PA's resentment continued to simmer until things reached boiling point a year and a half ago when the Bridging Committee arbitrated a case the PA had hoped to collect a big payoff on. He said the PA kidnapped two committee members and released them only after a score of members from the east Jerusalem community went to Ramallah to appeal for their release. Abu-Jamil claims Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat himself denounced the Bridging Committee and accused it of working with the Israeli police on security matters. "Following Arafat's statements, the committee decided that it would continue in its way," Abu-Jamil said. He said he doesn't fear for his own safety because, "Once you determine to follow the path you've chosen, you're not afraid."
Ben-Ruby called the allegation that committee members collaborate with Israel on security matters "nonsense." Though he didn't address the specifics of Arafat's statements about or attitude toward the committee, he said, "I'm sure that the PA are not happy because they've tried in the past to get into Jerusalem." He also dismissed the assertion that Abu-Jamil and other committee members receive money for their work. "These are honorable people from honorable families among the Palestinians. They're doing their work in order to help families, not for money." But many east Jerusalem residents don't believe the police-sanctioned committee operates any more purely than those affiliated with the PA or other local governing bodies. Before Abu-Jamil headed the Bridging Committee, locals attacked his home for alleged corruption and collaboration with Israel. Kevorkian said that any members of the Arab community who work with the Israeli police would run the risk of being perceived as collaborators in east Jerusalem. "The Palestinians in Israel still don't believe in the system, because the system isn't always fair, it's biased, it sees Arabs as Arabs," she said. The sterotype is that "every committee that works with the Israeli authorities is considered a collaborator. If you work with Israel, it raises a question mark," she said, adding that it could put the lives of the committee members at risk if they are seen as collaborators. "I wouldn't support it [the initiative] at all, as a criminologist, as a person who knows the field and the context and east Jerusalem. This is a very risky step by the police."
While she said she doesn't know the inner politics of the PA in their intervention work, she said examples of corruption can often be a case of the "issue between theory and practice." She said the PA's aim has been to minimize crime in the community, but that it has had to establish itself while under occupation and is using an undeveloped legal system. Ganon stressed that their relationship with the Bridging Committee stops short of anything related to security and that the committee members make a distinction between working with them and the border police. Abu-Jamil said the community hasn't objected to the committee's partnering with the Israeli police, since residents prefer their ties with Israel to those with the PA. "If you were to hold secret elections in east Jerusalem, undoubtedly 98 percent would vote against any PA foothold in east Jerusalem and to remain under Israeli control." He pointed to the widespread corruption in the PA to back his assertion: "They came here with nothing. They were broke. Today some of these officials already have four villas. Each child has a car. How is that possible?" "There's corruption, [just like] there's corruption in the world" Kader said. "We're facing the problem of corruption and because of that we want to change the situation."
Police officials said they've had an increase in the reporting of crimes such as domestic violence in the Arab community since they've worked with the committee, while four murders since the committee's inception have occurred without revenge killings. Ganon said developing a relationship where east Jerusalemites feel comfortable coming to the police is one of the main purposes of the program. "The Arab community is very closed to the outside...You can't get inside if you don't have good relations," he said. "We want to be involved, and if we want to help people and we want to make them feel free to come to us, we have to make them feel we are serious." But Kevorkian said such relationships and increased involvement need to be based on trust. "How could the police build trust with the intifada going on?" she asked. She added that the bottom line is the government's interest in maintaining order in Arab society--most easily done by keeping traditional institutions and hierarchies in place without examining if they best serve the victims of crime. She noted though, "From the other side, it's important to do something. The people need to be able to communicate with the police."
For Amoun Sleem's part, she wants to see police involvement in the case of Ra'afat's murder as well as that of the Arab community. The police need "to put him in jail for the rest of his life," she said, and the community needs to continue to search for a solution. If the situation isn't resolved properly, such as by having Jouisi's family leave the Old City, the surrounding Arab community will see the Gypsies as weak, she said. "It will open a window to do all kinds of things to this community." "Gypsies are peaceful people, really. [But] we're human, like anyone," she added. "It can be that [this murder] opens up something that no one will like."
Before his brutal murder 10 days ago, eight-year-old Ra'afat Sleem was a regular at his older cousin Amoun Sleem's English classes. "He was intelligent. He had a soft heart," recalls Amoun's sister Zarifa Sleem as she sits on the patio behind the family home that houses three generations. "He was so quiet and he liked to come to study."
Education can be a struggle for the 300 families in the Jerusalem Gypsy community (known as "Dom" in their own language), who live in shuttered homes tucked along winding streets in the Old City's Bab Hutt neighborhood. The community's low standard of living prompts children to leave school early in order to work, while the culture itself hasn't historically placed a premium on going to school. In addition, the experience can be harrowing for children who feel looked down upon by the greater Arab community. Zarifa still remembers when her teacher mocked her for being a Gypsy. "It made it stressful for me, but we continued with school anyway." In fact, she graduated from Al-Quds University, where she received a degree in nursing. Today she works at the Red Crescent Hospital. She notes that increasingly people in the community "see that we are educated and working and earning money, and that this is good, that it makes a difference."
To encourage such education, three years ago Amoun set up a foundation to encourage learning, the strengthening of cultural ties, and job training in order to improve the standard of living in the Gypsy community. The organization, called the Society of Gypsies in Israel, recently teamed up with MATI--The Jerusalem Business Development Center--in a first-of-its-kind effort to offer career training in catering and cosmetics to 27 men and women between the ages of 15 and 50 from the Gypsy community. "We know that they are very poor and they are considered to be the bottom of the bottom, and that life is not so easy for them," says Michal Wallach, the training director of MATI who helped coordinate the classes to battle widespread unemployment and provide opportunities beyond menial labor. "It's good for me, for the future. Now I know something new," says Behira Sleem, who took the catering course and hopes to find work at a restaurant.
The partnership began when a member of the Joint Distribution Committee heard about the Gypsies of Jerusalem when he encountered Gypsies in Yugoslavia. When he returned to Israel, he facilitated the MATI program. "We didn't know their existence before," says Wallach. Indeed, many Jerusalemites don't know about the Gypsies in their midst. Like all Gypsies, those here trace their origins back several hundred years to India before their dispersal in Europe and the Middle East. They settled here during the Middle Ages, living in Jerusalem since at least the British Mandate, though most left in 1948 to join communities in Jordan, Syria, and the West Bank. Local Gypsies speak Arabic and are predominantly Muslim.
Amoun says the work of the society and MATI is beginning to affect the traditionally closed society. "The community is becoming more open," she says. In addition to increasing respect for education, Gypsies are also beginning to practice family planning and contemplate intermarriage. These changes create respect for Gypsies, Amoun says. She explains that "a lot of people have misunderstood the community," and that connotations of Gypsies as panhandlers and thieves have changed at the same time that Gypsies have increasingly understood that begging in the streets "is not a good style of life." "We are learning, we are trying to bring change in a good way," she says. "I'm still a Gypsy and believe in our culture. It's a beautiful culture. I'm proud of our people."
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