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Minister promises apology if probe finds Umm al-Hiran incident not terror

Admitting mistake was ‘possible’ in deadly car crash, Erdan says police intel initially indicated slain Bedouin driver was an attacker

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announcing new measures to decriminalize marijuana use, January 26, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announcing new measures to decriminalize marijuana use, January 26, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on Thursday said he would apologize to the family of a Bedouin man shot dead as his car struck and killed a policeman last month if a Justice Ministry investigation concluded the incident was not a terror attack.

In a statement, Erdan — who in the aftermath of the January 18 incident asserted that Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an was a nationalistically motivated terrorist, inspired by the Islamic State group — admitted it was “possible” he was mistaken.

The minister came under fire from fellow lawmakers and others Wednesday after a Justice Ministry report reportedly found that Abu Al-Qia’an was not a terrorist, but was shot by mistake in the chaos of a pre-dawn operation to raze homes in a Bedouin village.

The final report by the ministry’s Internal Police Internal Investigations Department has not yet been released and officials say it’s still being worked on.

“Is it possible that mistakes were made during this difficult, complex incident? It’s possible, certainly in the complicated situation the forces in the field encountered there. If it turns out there were mistakes or it wasn’t a terror attack, then certainly the system is obligated to learn from it and I will ensure that the lessons are learned and what needs to be fixed will be fixed,” he said.

Joint (Arab) List leader MK Ayman Odeh holds the body of Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an, in a funeral that took place on January 24, 2017, near the village of Umm il-Hiran. (Joint List Spokesperson)
Joint (Arab) List leader MK Ayman Odeh holds the body of Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an, in a funeral that took place on January 24, 2017, near the village of Umm il-Hiran. (Joint List Spokesperson)

“And if it turns out that it wasn’t a terror attack then certainly we must apologize to the family members,” the minister, who oversees the Israel Police, added.

But Erdan also defended his earlier statements, saying he had relied on police reports from Umm al-Hiran.

“The police investigation and the police officers’ testimony pointed unequivocally to this being a car-ramming attack that killed a soldier,” he said. “These were the findings.”

As a minister “who was not in the field, I can only rely on the police, that’s how it works,” he added.

The incident took place in the early morning of January 18, when police arrived to demolish houses in the unrecognized village, which the state was seeking to remove in order to clear the way for a new Jewish town.

As officers converged on Umm al-Hiran, 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. Abu Al-Qia’an was fatally shot by police.

In his statement, Erdan also lashed out at Arab lawmakers, singling out Joint (Arab) List leader Ayman Odeh, for “inciting the residents of the area for months before the incident.” Odeh was injured in clashes with police at the scene.

The car which was used in a car ramming attack, killing an Israeli police man, during clashes and protests against demolition of homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, Southern Israel, January 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The car which was used in a car ramming attack, killing an Israeli police man, during clashes and protests against demolition of homes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, Southern Israel, January 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Erdan also dismissed the “incredible campaign of lies” against police “as if it is deliberately violent against Arabs.”

In the aftermath of the incident, activists and others said police had used excessive force, pointing to what they see as institutionalized racism against Arabs.

Family members of Abu-Qia’an this week urged the minister to apologize.

“The truth is starting to become clear, we have all waited for this,” Amal Abu Sa’ed, a widow of Abu Al-Qia’an, told Army Radio Tuesday. “Erdan made a mistake and we are requesting an apology. Only strong people can apologize.”

On Tuesday, Erdan appeared to walk back his previous claim that the “unequivocal conclusion” was that the incident was an act of terror, saying “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.”

Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Courtesy)
Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Courtesy)

According to reports Tuesday in Hebrew-language media, the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department found no evidence to support the claim that the incident in Umm al-Hiran was a terror attack, and also determined that police officers did not act according to protocol. One report on the right-wing Channel 20 said that officers shot at one another and almost caused a friendly fire accident.

But police said the Internal Investigations Department had yet to complete its investigation. “The information given to the public includes disinformation and many inaccuracies, something that has happened, unfortunately, many times since the incident,” police said in a statement on Wednesday. “We recommend waiting for the release of the official investigation’s findings and not to be moved by these statements or any others.”

A police spokesperson could not confirm when the investigation would end.

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

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 car, the TV report said.

Judicial sources were quoted by Haaretz Tuesday as saying the findings would “not be good for police.” According to the report, Abu Al-Qia’an’s speed at no point exceeded 20 kilometers per hour. It quoted professional assessments as saying such a speed does not indicate an attempt to carry out a ramming attack.

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