Two rights groups called on Justice Ministry investigators to probe allegations of police brutality after the most senior Arab lawmaker in the Knesset, Arab Joint List head MK Ayman Odeh, was injured during protests against court-ordered home demolitions in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran on January 18.
Policeman Erez Levi, 34, was killed in the altercations at the village after a local resident, Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an, drove his vehicle into a group of officers. Abu Al-Qia’an, 47, a teacher and father of 12, was himself killed when police opened fire on him immediately after the ramming.
An initial autopsy of Abu Al-Qia’an — accused by Israeli officials of terrorism in the wake of the incident — has shown the Bedouin man may have lost control of his vehicle after police shot him in the knee before the ramming.
Some MKs have called for a state commission of inquiry into the incident.
In the violent protest that followed the two deaths, Odeh suffered an injury to the head that he blamed on sponge-tipped bullets fired by police.
In a statement issued Monday, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and Adalah, an Arab legal aid organization, said it had appealed to the ministry’s Police Investigations Department to open a criminal probe into how and why police allegedly shot Odeh.
“The acts described [in the groups’ complaint] raise the suspicion of illegal use of force and illegal use of firearms. The officers’ actions violated Israeli law and constitute an infringement of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty,” the complaint reads.
Police have not released a specific response to the claims by Odeh repeated in the latest filing.
According to the groups, citing the testimony of Odeh himself, the MK was with a group of activists at the southern village on the morning of January 18, when shortly after police arrived at the site to prepare for the demolitions, they heard live fire — likely the moment in which the ramming incident took place in another part of the village.
Odeh and the activists began walking toward the sound, but were blocked by police officers. The officers would not budge even when Odeh’s position was explained to them, despite the fact that MKs enjoy parliamentary immunity from most police actions.
Then, according to the statement, officers began hitting and cursing the activists, as well as Odeh himself.
One officer sprayed pepper spray in Odeh’s face from point-blank range, the statement charges, echoing claims made by Odeh in the days after the incident.
The sponge-tipped bullets, the activists claimed, were shot after they had already retreated from the officers. Police also allegedly fired flash grenades, a nonlethal device that produces a blinding light, toward the activists.
Odeh was briefly hospitalized at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba later that day after being hit in the head and back. Doctors described his wounds as light.
Some police officials have suggested Odeh was struck not by police fire, but by rocks thrown inadvertently in his direction by protesters.
Hospital officials said medical staff could not determine from the wounds whether Odeh was struck by rocks or crowd-control ordnance.
Odeh’s wounds were also examined at the forensic medicine center in Abu Kabir, but the results of that examination have not yet been made public.
In the appeal to the PID, the rights groups said photos of Odeh’s wounds match wounds created by sponge-tipped bullets, and that such bullets were found on the ground beside those who had been hit at Umm al-Hiran, including Odeh.
Officers also stepped outside their authority when they allegedly used force to attempt to restrain an MK, the complaint notes.
The filing also asks that police investigate the media department of the police, which it claims misled the public about key aspects of the events at Umm al-Hiran.
“Publicizing utterly baseless claims about MK Odeh’s injury from rock-throwing, or his involvement in or abetting of an [alleged] car-ramming terror attack, amounts to willful misleading of the public, and reaches the level of incitement,” it reads.
On Saturday, several opposition lawmakers called for a broader government commission to examine the incident.
“The autopsy report on Abu Al-Qia’an reveals that Israeli police are responsible for his death and the death of the policeman Erez Levi,” Meretz party chief MK Zehava Galon said, according to Channel 10.
“It is necessary to establish a commission of inquiry that will reveal the sequence of events in Umm al-Hiran, the police’s conflicting versions, and the incitement against Arab MKs and all the people of Umm al-Hiran,” Galon added.
According to a report by Channel 10 news on Friday evening, Abu Al-Qia’an’s 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, locking it onto the gas pedal of the car he was driving.
After Levi was run over, several police officers fired at Abu Al-Qia’an. The autopsy showed he was probably killed from a bullet that hit him in the torso, Channel 10 reported Friday. He did not die immediately, however, and was allowed to bleed to death for about 30 minutes. The report said Abu Al-Qia’an’s life may have been saved if he’d received immediate medical attention.
Residents, activists and eyewitnesses had claimed even before the autopsy report that Abu Al-Qia’an’s car only accelerated and hit Levi after police shot at the driver, causing him to lose control.
But police and other public figures, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insisted the incident was a terror attack. They accused Abu Al-Qia’an of jihadist sympathies and called the attack “terrorism” and “murder.”
Galon said Saturday: “The culture of cover-ups and lies, incitement and conflicting versions from the police prove that the lives of Arab citizens are of less value in the eyes of the police. The police allowed [Abu Al-Qia’an] to bleed to death.”
Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi, a medical doctor, agreed with Galon and called for an investigation into the decision to delay treatment.
“The clear finding requires personal reckoning among all those who rushed to argue that [Abu Al-Qia’an] was a terrorist and an Islamic State operative,” he said. “It must be investigated who gave the order to keep [Abu Al-Qia’an] in the field without medical treatment that could have saved his life.”
Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul also accused members of the government of using the incident for their own political ends.
“While two innocent people lost their lives for no reason, those who are supposed to be our leaders have rushed to tear Israeli society apart — for the purpose of scoring momentary political points,” Bahloul said.
Meanwhile, about a hundred demonstrators gathered at the Shoket junction in the Negev to protest the Israeli authorities’ refusal to return the body of Abu Al-Qia’an to his family. The protesters, according to the Ynet news site, carried signs calling for a commission of inquiry as well as the ouster of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan for accusing Abu Al-Qia’an of being a terrorist with ties to the Islamic State group.
The deputy commander of the police southern district, Peretz Amar, earlier called the incident “a deliberate attack.”
“This is a fact,” he said. “There is no other explanation, and anyone who tries to offer an alternative explanation wasn’t here at the time and doesn’t understand.”
Amar said there were two lines of officers on either side of the road, and “no possible means to claim in this situation that he didn’t see them… He hit them. He killed [Levi].”
Videos of the incident did not definitively resolve the conflicting accounts.
One video, slowed to one-quarter speed, seems to show muzzle flashes from at least three shots coming from the firearm of one officer located next to Abu Al-Qia’an’s vehicle just before it accelerates toward other officers.
Some police sources said officers did fire, but into the air. Later, police reportedly acknowledged that they shot at Abu al-Qia’an.
After the ramming, the vehicle is shown swerving to the right, then correcting to the left before coming to a stop as a police vehicle rushes into its way.
Oriel Eisner, 26, an activist for the Center for Jewish Non-violence who said he witnessed the incident, confirmed to The Times of Israel that police fired at the vehicle before it accelerated. Eisner speculated that the driver was trying to leave the village in order to avoid confrontation with police.
- Israel Inside
- Ayman Odeh
- unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev
- home demolitions
- Israel Police
- Umm al-Hiran
- Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia'an
- Gilad Erdan
- Zehava Galon
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- Ahmad Tibi
- Justice Ministry
- Public Committee Against Torture in Israel PCATI
- Police Internal Investigations Department