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Justice Ministry to investigate killing of Bedouin man by undercover cops in Rahat

Top cop Shabtai backs officers who shot Sanad Salam al-Harbad, 25, saying he pointed a gun straight at them; Rahat mayor asks why anti-terror unit was deployed inside Israeli city

The center of the Bedouin city of Rahat in southern Israel, February 16, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The center of the Bedouin city of Rahat in southern Israel, February 16, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Justice Ministry announced an investigation on Tuesday into a police shooting of a Bedouin man in Rahat who officers said had pointed a gun at them during a shootout in the southern Negev city.

Israeli forces in civilian clothes and the Shin Bet security service conducted a raid in the city to arrest two Palestinian suspects. According to a Border Police spokesperson, two armed men — not the Palestinian suspects — opened fire on the officers during the raid.

Police said a third man, Sanad Salaam al-Harbad, pointed a gun at them at point-blank range during the firefight. Officers shot and killed him before he could open fire, according to police. The other two shooters fled, police said.

But the al-Harbad family has disputed the police account. Al-Harbad, who works as an electrical contractor in the wealthy central city of Ra’anana, had merely left his home to drive up north when police showed up, according to his family.

“This man had nothing to do with the people the police were pursuing. He may not have even known they were police, as they were dressed in civilian clothes, and then they shot him,” Rahat Mayor Faiz Abu Suheiban said in a phone call.

Suheiban added that al-Harbad’s family lived in an area in which Bedouin families were violently fighting over land. But he was not known to authorities to be involved in organized crime, the mayor said.

On Tuesday evening, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev provided a third account of the shooting that did not mention the alleged armed clashes at all.

“During an operation against criminal elements in Rahat, a lone policeman came across a local man holding a gun aimed at him. The policeman shot the resident in self-defense,” Barlev wrote on Twitter, adding that the police officer behaved “as expected of him.”

The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department — widely known by its Hebrew acronym Mahash — will investigate the shooting. While the department boasts a high conviction rate in cases where its lawyers head to court, critics have noted that the vast majority of investigations are closed without charges.

Israeli police in civilian clothes in coordination with the Shin Bet conducted their raid in Rahat early Tuesday morning. Officers sought to arrest two Palestinians, one of whom was suspected of involvement in terror, according to a security official.

Shortly before al-Harbad was shot, police successfully arrested one of the Palestinian suspects. The other Palestinian — who was suspected of terror offenses — escaped, the security official said.

Arab Israelis have seen a sharp spike in violence and organized crime over the past few years, with homicides reaching a record 126 in 2021, according to the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit. The current government has vowed to put an end to the crime wave and confiscate the many thousands of illegal weapons in Arab communities.

For years, Arab Israeli mayors and activists have accused the police of failing to crack down on criminals and end the crisis. Abu Suheiban, the mayor, questioned why the police entered Rahat to arrest Palestinian terror suspects but did not arrive during a recent shootout between criminals.

“We see that the police only enter when there are suspects in security offenses. When there was wild shooting in the same area just a few nights ago, there were no police at all,” said Abu Suheiban.

Fayez Abu Souhaiban, Rahat mayor, gestures before a map of the area in his office, a Bedouin city in Israel’s southern Negev region, on June 8, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Abu Suheiban also harshly criticized the deployment of undercover Border Police in Rahat, the largest single Bedouin city in the Negev desert. The anti-terror unit is mostly deployed against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“We’re citizens of the State of Israel. This isn’t the West Bank or Gaza. This was a mistake,” he said.

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai defended the officers’ actions on Tuesday afternoon. Besides al-Harbad, two Palestinians were killed in clashes with Border Police on Tuesday morning in the West Bank.

“Officers were forced to return fire against the threats. As a result, three suspects were killed, with [al-Harbad] having apparently aimed a gun at them,” said Shabtai, referring to al-Harbad. “These activities are a sharp and clear message to anyone who seeks to harm our forces.”

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