Joint List MK suggests racism behind lack of media coverage

Family protests as efforts to find Israeli mother missing in Paris sputter

Relatives of Lutfia Zbad, who suffers from schizophrenia, say authorities not doing enough to locate her over two months after she disappeared in center of French capital

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Lutfiya Zbad, 52, went missing in Paris on October 8, 2019. (Courtesy of Rasem Zbad)
Lutfiya Zbad, 52, went missing in Paris on October 8, 2019. (Courtesy of Rasem Zbad)

The family of an Israeli woman who suffers from mental illness and has been missing in Paris for over two months has urged authorities in France and Israel to step up efforts to locate her.

Lutfia Zbad, a 52-year-old divorced mother of three, went missing on October 8 while she was traveling with her daughter in the French capital. Israeli consular officials working with French police to locate her have been unsuccessful, and an Israeli search and rescue team recently called off its on-site efforts in Paris.

Zbad, from the Arab city of Baqa al-Gharbiya in northern Israel, was with her daughter Yasmin near a McDonald’s in Paris’s famous Champs Elysees boulevard when she suddenly disappeared, her brother Rasem, 56, said on Tuesday.

“After my sister and niece and their tour group left the restaurant, everyone except my sister crossed the street,” said Rasem, who had spoken to Yasmin about the circumstances of the disappearance. “My niece then turned around to find my sister and saw her looking at shops nearby.”

“A few seconds later, people in the tour group called out to my niece and she took her eyes off my sister,” he added. “When she turned back around to find my sister, she was gone.”

Zbad’s son Bahaa, 27, said that his mother, who is a homemaker, suffers from schizophrenia, a psychosis in which a person cannot differentiate reality from imagination.

Lutfiya Zbad, 52, went missing in Paris on October 8, 2019. (Courtesy of Rasem Zbad)

Rasem described his sister as often forgetful and aloof and said she did not have her passport or a cellphone with her when she vanished. He said the family tried to keep watch over her as much as possible.

Zbad has previously gone missing at least once. In May, her family lost track of her whereabouts for approximately a day before locating her in the coastal city of Hadera, some 10 kilometers (6 miles) from her hometown.

Rasem said he had implored the French public to help locate his sister, who was visiting Europe for the first time and did not know anybody there.

“We hope that anyone who sees her will inform us,” said Rasem, who flew to Paris in October to take part in the search. “We have passed out pictures of Lutfia to cab drivers and mosques, but we really need everyone’s help.”

He said he did not have any leads as to where she may have gone, adding that she does not speak French and only a smattering of English.

The Foreign Ministry said the Israeli consul-general and police attache in Paris have been working closely with the head of the French police’s unit for locating missing persons in an effort to find Zbad.

The ministry also said that a team of Israeli embassy officials, alongside Israeli search and rescue company Magnus, has carried out searches in the area where Zbad went missing; it added the French police have publicized a photo of her at police and fire stations and hospitals.

French police did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.

Guy Atzmon, the head of Magnus, said that a team from his company searched for Zbad for several weeks and recently halted its efforts on the ground in Paris. He also said that leads that Magnus obtained on Zbad’s whereabouts ultimately did not bear fruit.

“There was an instance where she was noticed. But by the time we arrived at that place, she had already left,” he said.

Atzmon said Magnus had been contracted by Zbad’s travel insurer Shirbit to search for her and had been working with the Israeli embassy in Paris. The firm is often tasked with finding and rescuing Israelis missing or stuck in danger zones, such as during natural disasters.

Bahaa, meanwhile, expressed dissatisfaction with the official Israeli and French efforts to locate his mother.

“If both countries did everything they can, they would have found her by now,” he said. “They need to look everywhere and use all the resources at their disposal. With all due respect, they have not done that.”

Police officers block the access to the Champs Elysees in Paris after a shooting on April 20, 2017. (AFP Photo/Thomas Samson)

Rasem also called on authorities to step up efforts on behalf of Zbad, comparing her case to that of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American backpacker sentenced to over seven years in prison in Russia after a small amount of marijuana was found in her luggage during a layover.

“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu personally contacted Putin about Naama Issachar. Why is he not contacting the authorities in France about Lutfia?” he stated.

Israeli officials have claimed Issachar is being held for political reasons. On Tuesday, Netanyahu, who has brought up the case with Russian President Vladimir Putin, vowed to bring her home.

The Foreign Ministry said it was working hard to locate Zbad.

“We reject the family’s claims,” it said. “The Israeli consul-general in Paris is in close contact with the daughter of Ms. Zbad and the chief investigator in the French police who is dealing with this file. The Foreign Ministry is working tirelessly to provide aid to any Israeli in hardship.”

While Issachar has become a cause celebre, Zbad’s case has received only occasional press in Israel and France.

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi suggested racism was behind the lack of attention being paid to Zbad’s disappearance.

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi seen at a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem about the disqualification of the Joint List from running in the September elections, August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It has not received enough coverage. I honestly believe that if she were a Jewish Israeli, the media would cover the story more prominently,” he told The Times of Israel.

Tibi said that he was in touch with members of the Palestinian community in France who he said had distributed pictures and details about Zbad at mosques.

He also said that he recently communicated with Foreign Ministry Director-General Yuval Rotem and Foreign Minister Israel Katz about “the necessity of undertaking greater efforts to find Lutfia.”

Rasem said he still was optimistic, but impatient.

“I still have high hopes that they will find her,” he said. “I only wish it will be as soon as possible. Her children and family are awaiting her return home.”

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