'Another life destroyed in a moment'
As one family mourns the passing of 19-year-old Amansh Yazatsu, estimates reveal that nearly 20 other hit-and-run victims were left to die by their killers this year.
"Go ahead," Desta Yazatsu greeted us at her family's home in Yokne'am this week. "Ask whatever you want.
Desta's younger sister, Amansh, was killed on February 10 in a hit-and-run accident while crossing Highway 66 in the dark. Police suspect that four drivers hit her, one after the other, and that each continued driving on their way.
As of Saturday, the driver who first hit her and who apparently caused her death still had not been found.
On the door to the Yazatsu's home hangs a mourning notice printed by the Israel Defense Forces for Private 1st Class Amansh Yazatsu, who served at a dental clinic on a base near Tira. Her family's small apartment is in a three-story building on a main street in Yokne'am. One side of the apartment building overlooks a green, hilly landscape. On the other is a road.
At the entrance to the building, not far from the edge of the sidewalk, the bereaved family gathers. Amansh's mother, Bayush, 55, is surrounded by relatives. She is silent.
"It is impossible to talk to her," says Desta ("Iris, in Hebrew" ). "It is impossible for her to answer now."
Bayush has given birth to seven children, some of whom are already married with children of their own. The eldest is 37. The youngest is 17; he is the last child to be born after Amansh, who was 19 when she died. Most of the Yazatsu family immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia a decade ago, and their Hebrew is not yet fluent.
Desta, who will turn 30 next month, sits on the sofa farthest from the door to the apartment. She has two small children and works in the dining room of an Electric Corporation facility. Her younger brother, Yossi, sits on the adjacent sofa. Next to him are two small nephews. In nearby armchairs sit two young women, both relatives.
"She really loved serving in the army," says Desta. "She always said she felt good there, how good it was for her there, helping people and serving the country."
In three weeks, Amansh was to have been demobilized. She never planned a trip around the world, no huge celebration.
"She wanted to work and help the family," says her sister. "She dreamt of joining the police, catching people who break into shops, steal, and kill. Being a good policewoman who helps people. If possible, not in uniform. That was her dream. Another more distant dream was to become a doctor. To my regret, that will not come true." "It was a wonderful funeral," says her sister Desta with a sad smile. "Everyone came: friends, soldiers, family. It is hard for us to talk. It is hard for us to answer. It is hard for us to find words. We didn't expect a thing like this to happen. It is hard for us to lose her. Very hard."
"Our sister was truly special," she adds. "A person who would try to connect you to the good path and see to it that you don't walk the crooked path." Everyone connected with her," she says. "She was a sociable type, a person who connected with everyone, no matter who it was, even with people who had hurt her. Not a person who bears a grudge"
One of her sisters-in-law adds, "She was an amazing girl. A person who would stay hungry so someone else could have what to eat. I have no words."
Amansh's family immigrated to Israel from the Ethiopian village of Dengla, about 500 kilometers and a six-hour drive from the capital Addis Ababa. The first to immigrate were Desta and her eldest brother, who came to Israel alone in 1995. Six years later their mother and four more of their siblings joined them, among them the late Amansh. Another brother, the seventh sibling, immigrated to Israel only a few months ago. The father has remained in Ethiopia. The Israel Defense Forces located him last week and informed him of his daughter's death.
Amansh was 10 years old when she immigrated with her mother and her siblings. They first lived in an absorption center in Arad and spent two years there with the family.
"She felt good, terrific," recalls her brother Yossi.
"Back in Ethiopia she had waited impatiently to meet with her two older siblings who were already in the country," adds her sister. After two years in Arad, the family moved to Yokne'am. "My brother and I helped them and we would explain to them everything that was difficult," says Desta.
Amansh attended high school at the Hasidim religious youth village boarding school near Kiryat Ata, as did most of her siblings.
Then she was conscripted. And then she was killed.
Desta spoke with Amansh for the last time on February 9. "She told me she was at home but I didn't manage to visit her, and that was it," says Desta. A few hours later she was called to identify her younger sister's body.
Something in the dark
A special police team is investigating the hit-and-run accident in which Amansh was killed. A gag order had been imposed on the case, though it has been partially lifted. The details that have been released thus far indicate that Amansh was killed during the early hours of February 10 as she crossed Highway 66 in a dark and dangerous area, apparently on her way home from a night out. It is suspected that a passing car ran her over and that the driver failed to stop, even as Amansh's body lay in the road.
It is also believed that three additional vehicles hit Amansh subsequently. One of the suspected vehicles was a van driven from Nazareth. A passenger who was in the car has told the police that he felt the driver hit "something," but that when he asked what it was, the driver replied, "Nothing."
The driver of that car has since been arrested by police. His attorney says he never imagined he had hit a human being, and that had he known that, he would have stopped and tried to help.
Another driver, a woman who came to the police of her own accord, said she felt she had hit "something" but did not realize it was a person.
The tragedy is reminiscent of a separate deadly hit-and-run several months ago. Five months ago, early on a Friday morning, a driver hit a young pedestrian and fled the scene without stopping to help her or calling for help. The victim in that accident, which took place in North Tel Aviv, was Lee Zeitouni. The driver who allegedly hit her, and his friend who was sitting next to him in the car, are both believed to be French Jews. Immediately following the accident the suspects fled to Paris.
A short time after she was killed, Zeitouni's friends set up a headquarters with the aim of locating the people responsible for the deed and for seeing to it that they stand trial. Roi Peled, Lee's partner, has since been trying in vain to apply pressure to the decision-makers in France to bring about the extradition of the suspects to Israel. At the end of last week, after hearing about the hit-and-run accident in which Amansh was killed, he wrote an article for the Ynet news site.
"After a crowded week in Paris I woke up on the kibbutz this morning," Peled wrote. "The headline screamed: 'A girl soldier crossed the road and was run over by a number of vehicles.' My head suddenly flew back five months to the moment when Lee was run over and killed."
"Another family whose life has been destroyed in a moment, another person who has no idea why they didn't stop to help his girlfriend, his sister, his daughter," he continued. "More drivers without a conscience considering and consulting about when, how and if they will face justice. Another family entering the terrible statistics of hit-and-run accidents. More pain and bereavement from an unnecessary and infuriating death."
Celebration and mourning
A few minutes' walk from the bereaved family's home is the elaborate Yokne'am municipal building. Simon Alfasi, who has been the mayor of Yokne'am since 1989, attended Amansh's funeral this week and visited her family's home.
Alfasi says he is proud of way immigrants from Ethiopia have been absorbed in Yokne'am. There are a reported 250 families of Ethiopian immigrants living in the town, and 700 children from the community attending schools there.
"Clearly there are problems," says Alfasi, "but we are doing everything we can to give them the feeling they are equal and they can succeed. This is a national mission I have very much supported. You won't find Yokne'am in the negative headlines about absorbing immigrants from Ethiopia. As far as I am concerned they are exactly like my own children and the other residents of he city."
Just two weeks ago, Alfasi celebrated with the Yazatsu family after they brought to Israel the last of the siblings who had remained in Ethiopia, efforts with which Alfasi had helped. The mother had come to his office with a letter of thanks and a modest gift she had prepared. "I have come to say thank you. My son has immigrated," she told him.
"It's hard to believe," says Alfasi. "It's hard to believe that the Jewish people - who says 'anyone who saves one soul in Israel, it's as if he has saved a whole world' - behaves in such a way. To run over a soldier girl and not stop to help? This has to turn on a red warning light for all of us. We have to look again for the values on which we were raised. Hit-and-run accidents have become almost a norm."
The ugliest of crimes
On average, 719 hit-and-run accidents occur in Israel each year, according to data gathered by the Or Yarok Association for Safer Driving in Israel. Nineteen people are killed in accidents of this sort every year.
Among them are 42-year-old Shneor Cheshin, a father of three from Tel Aviv and the son of retired Supreme Court Justice Mishael Cheshin. In June of 2010, Cheshin was run over and killed while he was riding his motorcycle near Rosh Ha'ayin.
The driver who was convicted of hitting Cheshin was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He recently requested that the conditions of his imprisonment be eased.
Eight years before the accident, Shneor's father, Justice Cheshin, wrote in a ruling on a case dealing with a hit-and-run accident: "The crime of abandonment after hitting someone is a very grave crime. It is among the ugliest of crimes. Here he is sprawled on the road, lying in his own blood, a person who has just been hit in the accident in which the driver is involved - a person who might have been helped, might have been saved - and instead of helping and extending aid to the injured person, the driver steps on the gas pedal and flees the scene to escape punishment. This gravity and this ugliness in the driver's deed are what led to the creation of the crime and the setting of a severe punishment for it.
"The deed of a hit-and-run driver damages the roots of the minimal social and personal solidarity necessary for maintaining a proper society," Cheshin wrote, adding, "The driver's fleeing from the scene is a definite anti-social and anti-moral act and it is fitting that it be punished with all the severity of the law."
In another hit-and-run case, Supreme Court Justice George Kara wrote in 1995: "The accused's leaving of the scene of the accident while abandoning the injured to the mercies of heaven and passersby entails more than a failure of moral values on the part of a person who has distractedly injured another, when all that is expected of him and required by law is that he stop his car and extend help to the people who have been injured because of him, not to mention the moral imperative of 'thou halt not stand against the blood of thy neighbor' (Leviticus 19:16 ) and certainly not the neighbor whom you are guilty of having injured."
Judge Zvi Caspi added in another case deliberated in 2003: "This is an ugly and harsh offense, truly despicable. In it, as emerges from the criminal's behavior, there are also aspects of severe damage to morality. ... In behavior of this sort there is real damage to the worthy social norms that reflect on the face of the society."
One year later Judge David Rosen wrote that "the crime of abandonment after hitting someone is a crime that disgraces the person who commits it."
"This crime," he charged, "is indicative of an immoral character and a substandard human level."