A policeman was killed Wednesday in a suspected car-ramming attack during clashes over home demolitions in the long-contested Bedouin town of Umm al-Hiran, police said. The driver was shot and killed by security forces at the scene.
Police identified the slain officer as 1st Sgt. Erez Levi, 34, from Yavneh, saying he was “murdered in a car-ramming attack.”
According to police sources, the driver of the ramming vehicle, identified as Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an, was shot and killed after driving into the police line in the southern town. “It was a terror attack that murdered a policeman,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Israel Radio.
Local residents and activists opposing the demolitions insisted that Abu al-Qia’an was not trying to ram officers, but had already been shot and lost control of his vehicle when it plowed into Levi and another policeman. Local resident Raed Abu Jihad told Israel Radio that police shot at the driver first.
Drone footage of the incident released later in the day appeared to show at least one policeman opening fire on the vehicle before it accelerates into a group of police officers.
One far-left activist, Israeli mathematician Kobi Snitz, said he witnessed the ramming incident, and “saw a white pickup truck that started driving far away from the officers, drove away from them, not toward them.”
Another witness, Uriel Eisner, 26, an activist at the Center for Jewish Non-violence, confirmed to The Times of Israel that police fired at the vehicle before it accelerated toward officers. Eisner speculated that the driver was trying to leave the village in order to avoid confrontation with police.
Later in the day, police clashed with local residents and Arab lawmakers trying to reach the scene, while Arab Israelis planned protests at 10 different sites across the country against the demolitions.
Earlier, Arab Joint List faction leader MK Ayman Odeh was struck in the head — by a sponge-tipped bullet, by a tear-gas canister, or by a misdirected rock thrown by a protester, according to conflicting reports — and several other people were reportedly seriously wounded. A spokesperson for Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, where Odeh and at least one moderately wounded police officer were treated, said doctors could not say definitively what caused Odeh’s wounds.
In a statement Wednesday morning, police said the assailant was an “Islamic Movement activist” who “accelerated toward the officers with the intent of carrying out a ramming attack. There are several wounded in various conditions, including officers.”
The statement said authorities were “examining the attacker’s (possible) affiliation with Islamic State.”
Abu Al-Qia’an’s relatives denied he was a member of the Islamic Movement and said he was a schoolteacher. “These are complete lies,” a man identified as the driver’s brother told Israel Radio, adding that he was just trying to leave the area when police opened fire on his car.
Police raided Abu al-Qia’an’s home Wednesday afternoon, arresting his son and collecting newspapers and books officials said could point toward a jihadist motive for the alleged attack.
Among the findings, according to police, were three copies of a single newspaper from November 5, 2015, whose banner headline was about a car-ramming attack near Hebron in which an IDF soldier was critically wounded, as well as a headline about an Islamic State bomb attack on an airplane.
Arabic-language books were confiscated and will be taken for examination, police said.
Police had descended on the village early Wednesday to evacuate and demolish illegally constructed buildings. They fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.
They later said demolitions would continue under heavy protection. Police sealed off the village to outsiders as hundreds of local residents tried to reach the scene.
A spokesperson for the Joint List said eight homes and four temporary structures were razed. TV reports said 15 homes were demolished in the unauthorized village, which is home to 400 Bedouin. Roughly 70 more homes were still standing late Wednesday afternoon as police wrapped up the operation.
The village has long been a flashpoint for clashes.
The roughly 700 residents of Umm al-Hiran are the descendants of a Bedouin clan that was removed 1948 from its original village, a site on which Kibbutz Shoval now sits.
Today, there are plans to replace the Bedouin village with a Jewish town to be called Hiran. According to reports, the new town would have 2,400 housing units, which would be populated largely by residents of the nearby community of Meitar.
As part of a much-criticized government urbanization plan for the semi-nomadic Bedouin encampments that dot the Negev desert, the villagers were told they would receive 800-square-meter family plots in the nearby town of Hura, which was built by the government in 1989 as a place to absorb Bedouins from nearby unrecognized villages.
The court said that since the Bedouins could theoretically live in the new town, the demolition was not discriminatory.
The inhabitants of Umm al-Hiran refused the court’s offer, and appealed to have their case heard before a High Court of Justice panel. The final appeal to keep their village from being demolished was struck down in January 2016.
The Arab legal aid organization Adalah, which has represented residents of Umm al-Hiran in court, said the deaths at the village Wednesday were “the responsibility of the Israeli court system and the Israeli government.”
It called the Supreme Court ruling permitting the demolition of Umm al-Hiran “racist, and accused the Israel Police of “seeing the Arab public as a whole as an enemy. The finger of the Israel Police is very light on the trigger when faced with Arab citizens.”