The case of Julie Pearson is bigger than the death of one woman and her family’s ongoing struggle for justice. It’s a lens through which to view larger institutional and cultural failings that allow violence against women to go unpunished almost as a matter of routine in Israel.
SEATTLE — When you’ve studied the Israeli-Arab conflict for as many decades and from as long a geographical distance as I have, you tend to emphasize major events and phenomena: the Occupation, wars, armies, Zionism, Palestinian nationalism, etc. It seems only natural to focus mainly on the Big Picture.
Of course, the real tragedy is writ small in the faces, destinies, and suffering of individuals on both sides. We mostly think of Israelis and Palestinians as the victims, but there are others.
Julie Pearson is one of those victims. She was found dead in Israel last November, allegedly beaten to death by her Israeli Palestinian boyfriend, Amjad Khatib (in some news accounts his name is spelled “Hatib”). Her family in Scotland has waited, with increasing frustration, for the creaky wheels of Israeli justice to turn for Julie. This week marks the one-year anniversary of her tragic death.
The case of Julie Pearson is bigger than the death of one woman and her family’s ongoing struggle for justice, though. It’s a lens through which to view larger institutional and cultural failings that allow violence against women to go unpunished almost as a matter of routine.
While societies around the world attempt to uproot misogynist attitudes that foster a lax handling of cases involving the sexual assault or death of women, these attitudes persist unabated in Israel. An Israeli NGO reported there were 9,000 cases of sexual assault reported in Israel in 2007. The United Nations reported in 2009 that there were 18 cases of rape per 100,000 women in Israel. Much like in the United States, these numbers are likely much higher due to incidents that go unreported for any number of reasons, including the victim’s concerns that such allegations won’t be taken seriously by the criminal justice system.
Israeli police are notoriously lax about investigating and charging men accused of violence against women. Men in Israel feel entitled. Attitudes toward women are quite different in many sectors (both Palestinian and Jewish) of Israeli society than those in Western nations.
Those attitudes are laid bare in the year that’s passed since Julie Pearson’s death. A year in which Israeli police and other authorities have failed to follow basic protocol in investigating and reporting the death of a foreign national. A year in which a family has struggled against injustice after injustice in their campaign for the truth about Julie Pearson’s death and accountability for those responsible.
A life on the periphery
Julie Pearson was both and raised in central Scotland. As an adult, she held a series of odd jobs, then, at the age of 37, decided she’d try her luck elsewhere. She arrived in Israel in September of 2014 with the intent of making aliyah.
Like many Brits, she loved Eilat for the warm, sunny climate, beaches, and carefree lifestyle.
Julie Pearson’s ties to Israel went well beyond her newly adopted home. Her grandfather, James Pearson, had served in the British army in Mandatory Palestine. There, he’d fallen in love with, and married, a lovely Israeli Yemenite woman just after World War II.
Their son, John, was born in Jerusalem. When John was two years old, James Pearson took his bride back home to Scotland, where they raised a family.
John loved Israel and visited his mother’s family there regularly. On one visit in 1980, he was met at the airport by Israeli Defense Forces personnel, who questioned why, as an Israeli citizen, he hadn’t fulfilled his Israeli military service requirement. As he’d just planned the trip as a holiday, John, who was 33 at the time, contacted the British embassy and managed to avoid being arrested on inducted on the spot. He went home to Scotland after the trip, but eventually returned to Israel and spent two years in the IDF. He was mustered out of the service in 1990.
Julie had a cousin already living in Eilat, which might have helped to smooth the transition to life there. However, Julie faced other obstacles. Unlike her father, Julie was not an Israeli citizen, so she was only eligible for a tourist visa, which prevented her from working in Israel. Once her visa expired, she feared that anything which might draw the attention of the authorities could result in deportation.
Julie took up jobs for which she could be paid under the table. She sold tickets for tourist boats which plied the harbor and Gulf of Aqaba until her boyfriend, Amjad Khatib, trashed the vessel cabin and got her fired. She lived with friends and relatives when she could. It was a peripatetic and marginal existence.
Khatib, originally from East Jerusalem, had moved to Eilat 11 years earlier. He was known to local police as a drug dealer with a mean and violent streak. He’d been arrested on drug charges five years prior to meeting Julie. He was also charged with beating a minor, his girlfriend at the time. The judge released him on probation on the assault charge, without any jail sentence.
A foreign woman eking out an existence on the periphery of society, struggling to remain under authorities’ radar, Julie perhaps saw Khatib as an authority figure, a source of protection and even companionship. If this was the case, she was, unfortunately, sadly mistaken.
Israeli government ministries failed Julie Pearson
This tragedy is about much more than a woman dating a drug dealer with a history of abuse, though. Major institutional failings also helped to seal her fate.
Julie Pearson longed to come out of the shadows. Her aunt, Deborah Pearson, who leads a public campaign demanding accountability for her niece’s death, told me that Julie visited the immigration office of the Israeli Interior Ministry at least seven times after she moved to Eilat in an attempt to secure citizenship. Her last visit was in September, just two months prior to her death. She had taken her father, an Israeli citizen, in the hope of persuading agency officials that she was deserving of citizenship.
Though the procedure is supposed to be almost automatic for Diaspora Jews, officials expressed skepticism about Julie’s Jewishness: Her grandmother and father were Jewish, but her grandfather and mother were not. She was asked to submit an affidavit from a Scottish rabbi saying she was Jewish. But there are very few rabbis in Scotland. Julie was not religious and didn’t know any.
Deborah said she reached out to one rabbi on behalf of her niece, but he refused to help, saying he didn’t know Julie and couldn’t vouch for her. Deborah also told me that both she and her daughter succeeded in getting Israeli citizenship and were never asked to furnish any letter from a local rabbi.
Julie’s best friend in Israel, Shelly Cohen, said she believes immigration authorities didn’t want to approve Julie’s citizenship application because they knew she was consorting with a Palestinian and convicted drug dealer. While it is taboo for a Jewish woman to consort with an Arab man in many social circles in Israel, the issue of Julie’s Jewishness may have just been a convenient excuse to obstruct her attempts to secure Israeli citizenship. (When I called the immigration office, seeking a comment on Julie’s case, no one answered.)
If she could have gotten Israeli citizenship, Julie would have been eligible for housing, health insurance, and financial and employment assistance designed to facilitate the integration of new immigrants into Israel society. She could have applied for jobs which paid a living wage and emerged from the shadows. The obstruction of the Interior Ministry meant none of this would be possible.
In May 2015, just six months prior to her death, Khatib accosted Julie while she was asleep in the room they shared. He accused her of stealing his money and his tablet. He beat her severely, then threw her belongings in the street. The cab driver who picked her up persuaded her to file a police complaint. She told police that her boyfriend beat her regularly. Khatib was arrested and given a slap-on-the-wrist sentence common in many Israeli cases of domestic violence — 30 days, including time served.
On a different occasion, Khatib allegedly gave Julie a concussion when he slammed her head into a metal bathroom door. Julie’s friend, Shelly Cohen, told me that Julie described Khatib sexually assaulting her with a broken vodka bottle on one occasion.
On the night of Nov. 26, 2015, Julie was beaten severely at Khatib’s home in front of several onlookers who did nothing to intervene. The exception was Julie’s best friend, Cohen, who said that when she attempted to stop the assault, Khatib threw her aside violently.
Cohen told me one of the eyewitnesses was named Yehudah and the other was an Israeli Bedouin whose name she didn’t know. The latter has not been seen in Eilat since Julie’s death, according to Cohen.
A newspaper report quoted another witness who overheard Julie’s plaintive screams for help. The victim cried out that she was being raped. She pounded on the door. But no one answered her calls, help never arrived. She was raped and beaten. Her jaw was broken. She was savagely assaulted, kicked in the abdomen and all over her body.
But she didn’t die.
Julie fled to Cohen’s house. Julie refused when her friend offered to take her to the hospital, fearing that it would bring unwanted attention to her and cause her to be deported.
The next day, after 18 hours of internal bleeding, Yehudah called and asked Julie to meet them at the Dolphin Hostel.
About 45 minutes after she left her friend’s home, Julie arrived at the hostel, where she collapsed and died, according to Yehudah, who called the ambulance.
Cohen, who did not accompany her friend to the hostel, believes Julie was beaten again.
While the autopsy report did not clarify this, it did state that the injuries resulting from a beating could have killed her.
Israeli police botched investigation of Julie Pearson’s death
Israeli police, a body not really known for professionalism or competence, initially refused to arrest Khatib. In addition to claiming they didn’t have probable cause to make an arrest, police said they couldn’t tie Julie Pearson’s injuries to her death without an autopsy.
As far as police were concerned, she simply collapsed and died, as if this somehow negated the possibility she’d been murdered. (Later, police would claim that she died of alcohol poisoning, as if blaming the victim for her own death might be enough to close the case on.)
When police interviewed the suspect’s friends who were present at the scene, they claimed to witness nothing. The guest who told the local newspaper that he’d heard Julie screaming was never interviewed by police, nor were any other potential witnesses who could attest to Khatib’s regular pattern of abuse and violence against the victim.
Authorities did not even inform Julie Pearson’s family in Scotland of her death. Nor did they inform the British embassy, despite this being standard practice in the death of a foreigner in Israel.
Shelly Cohen only learned of her friend’s death when she was brought in for questioning on Nov. 28. Police told her they would notify the family, but they never did. Nor did they notify the British embassy, as is protocol in such cases.
On Nov. 30, three days after Julie’s death, another friend called the Pearson family in Scotland with news of the tragedy. When Deborah Pearson called the British embassy to inform officials of Julie’s death the following day, she learned that the embassy had not been informed by police of the British citizen’s death. Police wouldn’t release a formal statement to British officials in Israel about the tragedy until Dec. 23.
Deborah Pearson told me that she provided police with numerous documents for use in the investigation, including Julie’s passport, her father’s birth certificate, a copy of his passport and IDF service papers, and her grandparents’ marriage certificate. Only Julie’s passport has been returned. All the other materials remain in police custody with no notice of when, or if, they will be returned. When she died, Julie was had been wearing the Star of David necklace she’d worn for 20 years. That, too, is missing, according to Deborah.
John Pearson, Julie’s father, spoke about his daughter to a newspaper reporter in Eilat in December, a few weeks after Julie died:
“Julie loved Israel. She loved Eilat. I was born in Jerusalem. I have an Israeli identity document and passport. I come to Eilat for a month every year. I was in Eilat in September and saw Julie every day. I don’t understand why Israeli police are covering up my daughter’s death. I assume Israeli authorities don’t want to acknowledge a British citizen was killed in Eilat.
“I am certain Julie died from the blows she suffered. Her body arrived in Scotland with signs of trauma on her head and all over her face, including her eyes,” her aunt, Deborah, told the paper.
Deborah further explained that Julie’s visa had expired in December 2014, almost a year prior to her death. In the meantime, Julie had visited the Interior Ministry multiple times, both in Eilat and in Beersheva, regarding her citizenship application.
“If they’d deported her back to Scotland she would be alive today,” Deborah said.
When contacted by a local Eilat reporter, the immigration office claimed that it had requested that Julie Pearson obtain two forms from the U.K. — her mental health and arrest records — in order to approve her citizenship application, but that she had not done so despite repeated requests.
After the Scottish rabbi refused Deborah Pearson’s request for help for her niece, the only option for Julie was Orthodox conversion in Israel. This is a long, complex process, which requires securing the aid of an Orthodox rabbi and taking classes to learn about rituals and tradition.
Shelly Cohen and members of the Pearson family say Julie was frequently drugged by Khatib. If so, it would’ve been practically impossible for her to complete such a conversation process. Nor would any rabbi likely have taken her on as a prospect for conversion.
Dispute over autopsy results lets murderer off the hook
Police sent Julie Pearson’s body to be autopsied at the infamous Abu Kabir forensic laboratory. A public affairs officer in the State prosecutor’s office named Vita told me that despite the obvious bruising and cuts covering Julie’s body, the autopsy report determined that she had not died under suspicious circumstances or been murdered. She died of “spontaneous internal bleeding.”
The state prosecutor’s office claims that since the autopsy didn’t conclude that a homicide had occurred, they can’t prosecute Khatib for that crime. But the office has returned the file to Eilat police to determine whether Khatib can be charged with the far less severe crime of assault, which would carry a much lighter sentence.
I attempted to speak with the Israeli prosecutor on the case, but was referred instead to the agency’s press office. I also contacted the British Foreign Office, but they refused to offer any information on Julie’s case, citing the victim’s and family’s right to privacy.
However, the prosecutor is mischaracterizing the conclusions of the autopsy, which clearly states the possibility that the abdominal bleeding which caused her death resulted from a physical assault. The Pearson family shared a copy of the autopsy report with me. In it, Dr. Ricardo Nachman, who performed the autopsy on Nov. 30, 2015, wrote:
“One cannot rule out that they [the abdominal bleeding and injuries which caused her death] were caused as a result of the deceased being hit by someone, in different times.”
He also confirmed this finding in a telephone conversation with Deborah Pearson, which she recounted to me.
Justice for Julie: Pearson family crusade
Israeli authorities embalmed Julie Pearson’s body before repatriating it to Scotland, preventing a the family from carrying out an independent autopsy. When a Scottish coroner examined the Israeli autopsy report on behalf of the family, he found a substantial likelihood that the beating caused her death.
Deborah Pearson has launched a campaign to hold Israel accountable for Julie’s death and the botched actions which followed it. Earlier this year, she explained to the Daily Mail why the family took the extraordinary step of releasing the image of Julie’s body in the funeral home.
“We wanted people to see what we saw. Her injuries were even worse than what you can see,” she said. “She had bruises all over her body — her torso, back, shoulders.”
Julie’s mother, Margaret Pearson, told the Sunday Mail:
“We feel we have no other choice but to let the world see the injuries my daughter sustained as we try to get to the truth of how Julie died.
I haven’t been able to rest since seeing what had been done to her. The black bruises to her face and body were horrific. There is no way she died from natural causes.”
Julie Pearson’s parents have traveled to Eilat multiple times in search of justice for their daughter. They met with British embassy personnel who accompanied them to meetings with Eilat police, who attributed their failure to notify the family of Julie’s death to an “error” made by one of their officers.
Deborah took advantage of freedom of information laws, prompting the British government to release a trove of emails and others documents relating to her niece’s death. In one of them, an employee in the Foreign Office wrote in December 2015:
“The police [are] claiming the family have mental health issues and are not taking them seriously.”
It’s likely that police interpreted the family’s anger and frustration as mental instability. This actually reveals much more about Israeli police than the Pearson family.
In another internal email sent in March, an official with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office criticized Israeli authorities for their failure to follow established procedure for informing various international organs, including Interpol, about the death of a British national abroad. The official further noted how this affected the Pearson family:
“It really was unacceptable for the family to find out over the phone from a friend of Julie’s in Eilat three days after her death and for the embassy to find out from the distressed family.
Things could have been handled better from the outset and maybe some of the mistrust from the family could have been avoided.”
In another email, dated Dec. 21, an FCO official in Israel wrote:
“To summarise, the Eilat police may not have handled this case correctly in a few aspects.
They conducted an autopsy without the consent of the family; they did not contact the family and the family heard through a friend’s phone call.
The FCO was notified by the family four days later.”
That email, sent weeks after Julie Pearson’s death, further noted:
“The police have not submitted anything in writing to us or to the family, not even basic information as to where and when the death occurred, and have not provided the family with any information on the cause of death.”
Despite the passage of almost an entire year, not much has changed for the Pearson family. Justice delayed is justice denied.