A Hit-and-Run Death Clouds French-Israeli Relations

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Moti Milrod / Haaretz / Reuters

Israelis hold placards as they walk past a banner depicting Lee Zeitouni, a 25-year-old Israeli woman who was killed in a hit-and-run accident in Tel Aviv, during a protest opposite the French Embassy in Tel Aviv, September 21, 2011. REUTERS

Given France’s historic and generally close ties with Arab regimes, it’s perhaps not surprising that Paris’ relationship with Israel has always been somewhat complicated. And while French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made an effort to create closer bonds with Israel (a country he has repeatedly called “a friend of France”), events have regularly managed to create new tensions—whether they are French concerns over the Israeli military action against Gaza in 2008, Paris’ backing of the vote to give Palestine full membership at UNESCO, or live microphones picking up Sarkozy’s private comments at November’s G20 summit claiming Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu “is a liar.” But a case of manslaughter is producing even more strains between the two countries. The stress has arisen from the hit-and-run death of 25 year-old Lee Zeitouni on Sept. 16, 2011 in Tel Aviv. She was allegedly killed by two French citizens who reportedly sped away from the mortally-wounded victim, fleeing the country and arrest. Cries of protest and outrage have grown in Israel since then, but French authorities appear unable to do much about it under national laws prohibiting extradition of the two men back to Israel.

According to French and Israeli press accounts, the two suspects—Claude Isaac Hayat, 32, and Eric Rubic, 28—left a Tel-Aviv disco in the early hours of Sept. 16, and hit Zeitouni in a speeding four-wheel drive vehicle as she crossed a street en route to work as a Pilates instructor. Information varies on whether Zeitouni was killed upon impact or still alive when the two suspects fled, but many reports suggest the pair left the victim dying on the road as they fled the scene of the accident, hastily collecting their belongings at their hotel, and rushing to the airport for the first flight back to France. Press accounts say Hayat and Rubic were back in France before Israeli police were able to identify them as the suspects. Rubic and Hayat’s French lawyers have said the friends do not deny the allegations leveled against them, but nevertheless refuse to return to Israel for a police inquiry and trial that they fear will be biased against them.

That refusal is not the only thing that outraged Israel. Because they’ve broken no French laws, Hayat and Rubic have remained free and have lived normally in southern France since their return, a situation that has shocked and infuriated Zeitouni’s friends and family. They’ve been joined by hundreds of Israeli citizens and scores politicians in demanding justice from France—an effort that has drawn considerable attention from an increasingly embarrassed and sympathizing French public. That shared sentiment increased this week as French media reported that Hayat—who was allegedly driving the speeding car that hit Zeitouni—had been arrested and briefly detained in southern France on Dec. 30 after being caught driving far above France’s maximum speed limit.

Despite public consensus in both nations the pair should be handed over to Israeli police, that simply isn’t going to happen. As French Ambassador to Israel, Christophe Bigot, told a Knesset panel Jan. 3, though France shares the wishes of Zeitouni’s mourners in wanting to see the suspects tried in Israel, French law requires that the pair must return to Israel on their own for that to happen—a very improbable scenario, given their apparent efforts to flee.

“France passed a law in 2004 that says clearly that it cannot extradite its own citizens except to countries that are members of the European Union,” Bigot told legislators. “Israel is not yet a member of the E.U., that means we cannot extradite them to Israel, just like we cannot extradite French nationals to the U.S., Canada, and Switzerland. There are no exceptions to this, whatever the crime is and whatever the country. This is the legal situation.”

That’s something that strikes people in both countries as shockingly indecent in the face of what appears to be an open-and-shut case. Some Israelis fear the situation leaves future victims totally defenseless against other crimes carried out by foreigners who may also flee justice by simply going home. “I am not a lawyer and I do not care if there is a legal agreement or not, all I know is that justice must be found and we need to stop the next murder,” said Roy Peled, Zeitouni’s partner, following the legislators’ meeting with Bigot. “France has become a shelter for criminals. These two men came here, killed someone and because they have a foreign passport just left. This could happen again tomorrow to anyone else.”

So will justice ever be served? Perhaps. As Bigot stressed, Rubic and Hayat can be investigated and eventually tried if Israel officially files necessary legal requests with French justice authorities over the incident and Zeitouni’s family follows that up by filing civil charges for wrongful death. A French investigating magistrate could then be appointed, and build a case that could be taken to trial in France—a process lawyers for Rubic and Hayat say they’d cooperate in. Even in the event of a guilty verdict, however, the maximum prison term in France for such offenses is seven years, compared to 20 in Israel. And it’s uncertain the final sentence would even be that stiff, given the difficulty of managing inquiries across borders, and the possibility the accused would argue mitigating circumstances to defend their actions.

Moreover, the French investigative process is notoriously painstaking and it may be years before the case could ever make it before a French court. It would still probably be worth the effort, however—not only to calm roiled diplomatic waters between France and Israel, but to give hope to Zeitouni’s family and friends that she will receive justice, no matter how long it takes.

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