Op-edStaining a family, harming the integrity of law enforcement

A terrible injustice, belatedly acknowledged for the wrong reasons

Amid pre-dawn chaos in a Bedouin village, a civilian lost his life. So did a cop. And the authorities rushed to a false conclusion. Now the truth is out, and the damage is rippling

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Israeli police stand next to a vehicle that crashed into police officers in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, January 18, 2017. (Israel Police)
Israeli police stand next to a vehicle that crashed into police officers in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, January 18, 2017. (Israel Police)

In The Times of Israel’s newsroom on the morning of January 18, 2017, our editors looked over and over at a video, released by police, purporting to show “a terrorist attack” in which a Bedouin Israeli man rammed his car into a group of police officers who were overseeing the demolition of homes in the unrecognized Negev village of Umm al-Hiran. Plowing into the cops, the vehicle killed one of them, 1st Sgt. Erez Levi, 34. The driver, too, Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an, was killed at the scene — shot by the cops after he drove into the police line, the police said.

The police statement was emphatic: Levi had been “murdered in a car-ramming attack.” The minister of public security, Gilad Erdan, today Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and set to become our ambassador to the US as well, was similarly definitive: “It was a terror attack that murdered a policeman,” Erdan said in an Israel Radio interview that morning, and would repeat on numerous further occasions. Abu Al-Qia’an was an “Islamic Movement activist,” the police further declared, and the authorities were “examining the attacker’s (possible) affiliation with Islamic State.”

The cops’ own drone footage, however, seemed to us to be at odds with that firm official conclusion.

Or rather, while the first clip released by police appeared at first glance to match the official narrative — highlighting the “terrorist’s car” as it had accelerated toward the “police team” — a fuller clip released shortly afterward showed clearly that shots had been fired at close range at Abu Al-Qia’an’s initially slow-moving SUV, which then accelerated and crashed into the cops, suggesting that he may have been wounded and was no longer in control of the vehicle at the time of the collision.

As the hours passed, eyewitnesses came forward to insist that this was not terrorism, and that cops had opened fire on Abu Al-Qia’an before the crash, apparently erroneously fearing an attack. Hundreds of cops had been deployed in the village for the pre-dawn demolitions, and the situation was chaotic, the witnesses said.

Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Courtesy)

It also quickly turned out that Abu Al-Qia’an was a 47-year-old teacher, and a father of 12 — far from the regular profile of a terrorist. He had packed a few belongings into his car and intended to drive out of the village, his family said, not wanting to stay and witness the demolition of their home.

Subsequent reports indicated that the Shin Bet domestic security service had concluded within 48 hours that this was no act of terrorism, but rather a “serious operational failure” by the police. But a year later, the police were still insisting that Abu Al-Qia’an was indeed a terrorist. In May 2018, the state attorney’s office closed an investigation into the events, saying it still couldn’t conclusively determine what had happened.

Police officer 1st Sgt. Erez Levi, 34, who was killed in what was initially alleged to be a car-ramming terrorist attack at Umm al-Hiran, January 18, 2017. (Courtesy)

Now, however, almost four years after the incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has acknowledged what those drone videos had indicated from the get-go — that the official narrative was false — and he issued an apology to Abu Al-Qia’an’s family: “They [the police] said he was a terrorist. Yesterday, it turned out that he wasn’t a terrorist,” the prime minister declared Tuesday night. The police, for their part, expressed regret, though, notably, they did not apologize or retract the claim of terrorism.

Former state attorney Shai Nitzan (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The truth has only been officially acknowledged in the wake of a TV report this week highlighting the official cover-up — a TV report interwoven, as so much of Israeli current affairs these days is interwoven, with Netanyahu’s legal embroilments. It was the former state attorney Shai Nitzan who oversaw the 2018 investigation, and allegedly suppressed evidence — the same Shai Nitzan frequently castigated by Netanyahu as a key figure in the ostensible political coup attempt that sees the prime minister on trial in three corruption cases.

Netanyahu has a dismal track record of incitement against Israel’s Arab population, but his key imperative as his trial gathers pace is to discredit the cops and prosecutors who probed and indicted him, and this abysmal saga does precisely that.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Beit Shemesh on September 8, 2020, during which he apologized to the family of Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an. (Screen capture: Facebook)

The whole tragic story stinks, as it stank from the very start. In the chaotic darkness before dawn in a Bedouin village down south, a civilian lost his life. A cop lost his life. The authorities rushed to an unsupported and unsupportable conclusion, and for long years refused to acknowledge the truth. And that truth has only emerged now because of unrelated legal and political battles, raising the question of what else is being covered up by Israeli law enforcement that has yet to emerge because it does not serve somebody powerful’s unrelated personal interests.

What else is being covered up by Israeli law enforcement that has yet to emerge because it does not serve somebody powerful’s unrelated personal interests?

When Israel’s law enforcement authorities peddle false narratives, they destroy their own credibility, undermine public faith in their integrity, and empower those who seek to weaken the rule of law.

Bedouin women sit amid destroyed homes in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, January 18, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

They also, not incidentally, cause unconscionable injustice — as was the case here for the family of Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an. They lost their husband and father, who was reportedly left to bleed to death at the scene, and had his name traduced.

Dr. Amal Abu Saad, widow of Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Youtube screenshot)

“Everyone knew the evidence that he was innocent from the start,” said his widow Amal this week, as the family called for a commission of inquiry into the saga. “They closed the case because he was a Bedouin.”

With extraordinary grace, Amal also said that the apology was “better late than never.” She said her late husband was “an educator who represented Israel overseas and didn’t hate anybody.”

But, she asked, “Why couldn’t they have told the truth at the time?”

An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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