A Phoenix psychologist has set up a petition at change.org to pressure the French government to return to Israel — or to put on trial in France — two suspects in a hit-and-run accident in Tel Aviv that took the life of her niece on Sept. 16.
"I was her sponsor here," Linda Hirsch, a cousin of Lee Zeitouni, told Jewish News this week, "so I feel I should do something here." She contacted the newspaper last week to spread the word about her petition, a petition in Israel put together by Zeitouni's boyfriend and a similar effort under way in the Jewish community in France. (A French language Facebook page called "Justice pour Lee Zeitouni" was started soon after the accident.)
"We're hoping that there's enough pressure (on the French government) from these three sources to at least make this case not disappear," Hirsch said.
Zeitouni, an Israeli citizen, lived with Hirsch from May 2010 to May 2011 as she attended Scottsdale Community College, where she received certification in Pilates instruction, Hirsch said.
Zeitouni then returned to Israel to see family and earn some money as she planned what courses she would take next semester in the United States, Hirsch said. The young woman intended to seek a doctorate in physical therapy, and was expecting to stay with Hirsch for six more years, she added.
"Pilates is used in physical therapy, so she had the skills for one of the requirements for physical therapy (studies)," Hirsch said.
Technically, she and Zeitouni are first cousins once removed, but because Hirsch is the cousin of Zeitouni's father, the student referred to the psychologist as her aunt.
"She's definitely my daughter in a hundred ways from Sunday," Hirsch said of her own feeling about their relationship.
Zeitouni, 25, was on her way to a Tel Aviv gym to teach a Pilates class when she was struck by a black BMW sports utility vehicle on Pinkhas Street, according to a Jerusalem Post report. Zeitouni died instantly, the report said.
Published reports differ on the surnames and ages of the two suspects, which Jewish News could not independently confirm. The reports indicate that the two men were friends and are about 40 years old. Eric Roubbi (also reported as Roubi or Rubic) and Claude Isaac (also reported as Issac) were French tourists who fled the country for Paris within hours of the fatal hit and run, according to newspaper reports. Isaac is suspected of having been behind the wheel and Roubbi, who reportedly owned the vehicle, was a passenger when the accident happened.
The Post reported that thousands gathered Sept. 18 at Kibbutz Neve Or, where Zeitouni was born and raised, for her funeral. Later that week, the newspaper reported that hundreds had gathered outside the French Embassy to press for extradition or trial of the two suspects.
Hirsch said that she was in Israel for the funeral and at the Zeitounis' home in Kibbutz Neve Or when Christophe Bigot, the French ambassador to Israel, visited the family.
The ambassador explained to the family, which was pressing for the suspects to be extradited to Israel, that because the suspects were in France, Israeli police would have to conduct an investigation and submit the investigation report to the French Embassy, which would in turn send the report to a French judge who would determine if there was enough evidence for a prosecution.
Israel Radio reported that Bigot said, "I very much hope they will be extradited to Israel and tried in Israel."
The Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court issued an international arrest warrant on the night of Sept. 17, and Israeli police asked for help from Interpol to apprehend the suspects, according to the Post.
"The two escaped the scene and drove through red lights. They hid the car in the parking lot of the building they lived in, on Maze Street in Tel Aviv," a Tel Aviv police spokesman was quoted as saying in the Post. "Immediately afterward, they gathered their belongings in suitcases and fled the country with their families. They're now in Paris."
Haaretz reported that police said the alleged driver of the vehicle had called from Paris and promised to report for questioning. The report said that Interpol had been asked to help with extradition proceedings and then said, "However, because Israel and France do not have an extradition treaty, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to bring the two suspects to Israel for trial unless they agree to return voluntarily."
Hirsch explained that's why she started her petition after returning from Israel on Sept. 24. She also sent a letter to Francois Delattre, the French ambassador to the United States, via purpleletter.com, a website that delivers letters to public officials.
In that letter, she wrote, "These men stole a human life from my family with no compunction to even stop and provide assistance. That they believe simply telling the French press that they are sorry is enough of a payment is bizarre."
"The French Embassy refused to even answer my phone calls," Hirsch told Jewish News. So she has sent the letter to Jewish organizations around the country.
"In order to get these men prosecuted, Israeli police have to create an airtight case without being able to interview the two suspects," she said. "We're questioning whether there's a chance of any justice happening."