Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on Tuesday appeared to walk back his previous insistence that an incident in a Bedouin village during which a police officer and a local resident were killed was a terror attack inspired by jihadist sympathies.
Speaking at a police event in the southern city of Beersheba on Tuesday, Erdan said “we had a rough and regrettable incident a few weeks ago at Umm al-Hiran,” while adding that “we must not let anyone try to take a local event, during which, sadly, both a police officer and a citizen were killed, and project from it on the relations between the Bedouin population and the Israel Police.”
The incident Erdan was referring to took place in the early morning of January 18, when police arrived to demolish a number of buildings built without permits in Umm al-Hiran that had been ordered by authorities to be destroyed.
As officers converged on the village, Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an, 47, a teacher and father of 12, packed a few belongings into his SUV and drove from his house, telling friends that he did not wish to witness its destruction. Soon afterward, the vehicle rammed into a group of officers, killing 1st Sgt. Erez Levi, 34, a father of two from Yavneh. Abu Al-Qia’an was fatally shot by police.
Police and Erdan initially asserted that Abu Al-Qia’an was a terrorist, and accused him of being inspired by the Islamic State group. They said he was shot after accelerating the vehicle in the direction of the officers.
But video footage that emerged in the hours after the incident showed the officers fired before Abu Al-Qia’an accelerated, and that, contrary to police assertions, the car’s lights were on.
In addition, Channel 10 reported last month that a police autopsy indicated that a police bullet hit him in the right knee, smashing it. The bullet wound may have caused Abu Al-Qia’an to lose control of his leg, which may have locked onto the gas pedal of the car he was driving, the TV report said.
Erdan’s comments Tuesday seemed to mark the completion of a gradual reversal of his initial claims in the wake of the fatal clash, as a week after the incident he conceded that “there are still many open questions,” although he continued to maintain that he believed it was a terror attack. He had previously said it was an “unequivocal conclusion” it was an act of terror.
“We need to draw conclusions once we find out exactly what happened there and the [Justice Ministry’s] Police Internal Investigations Department completes its investigation,” Haaretz quoted Erdan as saying on Tuesday. The findings of the police investigation are expected in the coming weeks, Channel 10 reported earlier this month.
“From there we’ll continue to strengthen this relationship” between police and the Bedouins in order “to bolster the police and law enforcement services against criminals who harm, more than anyone else, the dear Bedouin community with whom we wish to continue to live in peaceful coexistence in the Negev,” he added.
The incident led to widespread frustration among Bedouins towards police, and in the days after the Umm al-Hiran clash there were widespread protests and demonstrations by members of Israel’s Arab community against the shooting of Abu al-Qia’an and against alleged discrimination that prevents members of the community obtaining legal building approval, resulting in illegal construction.
Elie Leshem contributed to this report.