Justice minister asks for probe into alleged cover-up of Bedouin man’s killing

Justice minister asks for probe into alleged cover-up of Bedouin man’s killing

But Nissenkorn slams Netanyahu’s attempt to link 2017 case of Yaqoub Abu al-Qia’an, who was smeared as an Islamic State-supporting terrorist, to his own legal woes

New Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn speaks during a ceremony at the Justice Ministry on May 18, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
New Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn speaks during a ceremony at the Justice Ministry on May 18, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn on Sunday asked an ombudsman to open a probe into the conduct of the State Attorney’s Office in the case of a Bedouin man shot to death by police in 2017, days after a TV report said the office had covered up the fact that he was not a terrorist in an attempt to protect the image of law enforcement agencies.

Nissenkorn made the request from former judge David Rosen, who is in charge of probing the public prosecution.

Yaqoub Abu al-Qia’an’s relatives have called for a probe into the incident in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran, and have said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology last week for labeling him a terrorist was too little and too late.

Nissenkorn and Economy Minister Amir Peretz said they had also put together a team, headed by their ministries’ directors, to weigh state aid to Umm al-Hiran evacuees and to find long-term solutions for them.

The justice minister, of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, has taken an unwavering stance in defense of law enforcement bodies, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies have launched increasingly frequent attacks on them against the backdrop of the three criminal cases and ensuing indictment against the premier.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on September 9, 2020. (Screen capture/Facebook)

“At a time when the rule of law is under a daily, unbridled attack aimed solely at delegitimizing the gatekeepers, we must separate the wheat from the chaff to continue to improve the system,” Nissenkorn said in a statement.

“As I have clarified since entering office, alongside uncompromising defense of the independence of the law enforcement system, I am committed to checking professionally and fairly any criticism made in good faith.”

Netanyahu publicly apologized on Tuesday night for the Israeli government’s claim that Abu al-Qia’an — who was fatally shot by police during the demolition of his home in the Negev village — was a terrorist.

The apology was the first acknowledgement by a government official that the characterization was wrong, despite a wealth of evidence showing that Abu al-Qia’an was not a terrorist and had not attacked the police. It came a day after a TV report accused police and prosecutors of a cover-up in various cases, including the shooting, to avoid tarnishing their name while investigating Netanyahu. This led many to question Netanyahu’s motivations in issuing the apology, especially since he accused police and prosecutors of branding Abu al-Qia’an a terrorist in order “to harm me.”

Then-public security minister Gilad Erdan and then-police chief Roni Alsheich attend a ceremony at police headquarters in Jerusalem, on September 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Nissenkorn rebuffed Netanyahu, saying: “Don’t be confused: Any attempt to link the tragic incident in Umm al-Hiran to false conspiracy theories is shameful and divorced [from reality].”

Ahmad Abu al-Qia’an, the victim’s brother, has called for Roni Alsheich and Gilad Erdan, who were, respectively, police commissioner and public security minister at the time of the shooting, to be tried for calling his brother a terrorist and alleging that he belonged to the Islamic State terror group.

He also alleged that then-state prosecutor Shai Nitzan tried to cover up for police, based on the Channel 12 report.

He reiterated the family’s call for his brother’s children to be compensated.

Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Courtesy)

Nitzan said in a series of media appearances this week that he never called Abu Al-Qia’an a terrorist and had certainly not backed up the police conclusion. He also said Netanyahu was “full of lies” for insinuating that police had tried to cover up their mistake in the Abu al-Qia’an case to harm him.

On Thursday, Economy Minister Peretz visited Abu al-Qia’an’s relatives to apologize on behalf of the government for branding him a terrorist, and promised to form a team that will decide on compensation for the family.

Abu al-Qia’an was shot by police officers in January 2017, when officers arrived to oversee the demolition of houses, including his own, in Umm al-Hiran, an unrecognized Bedouin village that the state was razing to clear the way for a new Jewish town.

As officers converged on the village, Abu al-Qia’an, a 47-year-old teacher and father of 12, packed a few belongings into his SUV and drove from his house, saying he could not bear to watch it be razed.

Soon afterward, Abu al-Qia’an was shot by police. He lost control of his car, which accelerated downhill and rammed into a group of officers, killing one of them. He was then shot again by police, who assumed he had rammed the officers intentionally, and died.

Israeli police stand next to Yaqoub Abu al-Qia’an’s vehicle in Umm al-Hiran, January 18, 2017. (Israel Police)

After the incident, Alsheich and Erdan called Abu al-Qia’an a terrorist and alleged that he belonged to the Islamic State. A report earlier this year, however, revealed that the only purported evidence for Abu al-Qia’an’s terror ties were Islamic educational materials in his house.

Family and friends challenged Israeli authorities’ claim that Abu al-Qia’an was a terrorist as soon as it was made.

After Netanyahu delivered his statement Tuesday, the Israel Police last week expressed regret for the first time over the death of Abu al-Qia’an, though it stopped short of apologizing or fully retracting the claim that he was a terrorist.

“We participate in the sorrow of the families over their loss,” a police spokesman said in a brief statement, referring to Abu al-Qia’an and Erez Levi, the officer who was run over by his car, calling their deaths a “regrettable incident.”

Aaron Boxerman and AP contributed to this report.

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