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Minister visits family of Bedouin man slain by cops, mulls state payout

Amir Peretz apologizes on behalf of government for branding Yaqoub Abu al-Qia’an a terrorist, in first condolence visit since January 2017 killing

Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia'an. (Courtesy)
Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia'an. (Courtesy)

Economy Minister Amir Peretz on Thursday visited the relatives of a Bedouin teacher shot dead by police in 2017, apologized on behalf of the government for branding him a terrorist, and promised to form a team that will decide on compensation for the family.

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

The apology was the first acknowledgement of wrongdoing by a government official, 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, leading some to question Netanyahu’s motivations in issuing the apology.

Peretz said he welcomed Netanyahu’s apology, as well as President Reuven Rivlin’s, but distanced himself from the premier’s accusations that police and prosecutors only called him a terrorist to harm Netanyahu.

Economy Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“These are two very different things, and we must not allow them to be linked because that will only harm the message,” Peretz said. “This incident should be used to foster coexistence and mutual recognition between the entire Israeli society and the Arab community in general, and the Bedouin community in particular.”

“I came first and foremost to express deep sorrow for the loss of life and the tragic incident in Umm al-Hiran,” Peretz said. “I want to say in the most clear and unequivocal way — we came to do Yaqoub justice. It is our duty to clear his name. There was no reason for the family to go through a time where there is a stain on its name.”

He also announced that he and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn had decided to form a team to weigh financial aid to the family.

Yaqoub’s widow, Amal, welcomed Peretz’s words as well as Netanyahu’s apology and said Peretz was the first one to visit the family after almost four years. Peretz, a member of the Labor Party, was not in the government at the time of the incident.

“I hope this visit has results and that the family gets adequate compensation for what happened,” she said. “I want you to remove the prism through which you view the Bedouin society. It is a normal community like every community in the world. It has both excellent and good people, and bad people and thieves. The more the Bedouin society is neglected, the more crime and bad things will proliferate.”

On Wednesday, Yaqoub’s son Dr. Hussam Abu al-Qia’an said his family had been homeless since the January 2017 incident.

“We welcome Netanyahu’s apology, though it came late,” he said, according to the Hebrew-language media reports. “I invite him to come and see how we live. We will sue for damages over what happened to the family.”

“If your apology is honest,” he said, addressing Netanyahu, “come rehabilitate our lives and home.”

Abu al-Qia’an was shot by police officers in January 2017, when officers arrived to oversee the demolition of houses in his home village of 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 his home be razed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Beit Shemesh on September 8, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

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.

After the incident, then-Israel Police chief Roni Alsheich and then-public security minister Gilad 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-Qi’an’s terror ties were Islamic educational materials in his house.

The state prosecution on Wednesday took issue with parts of Netanyahu’s speech, in which he accused them of branding Abu al-Qia’an a terrorist. The claim is a “lie,” the prosecution said.

“The claim that Abu al-Qia’an was a terrorist was never stated by the prosecution, but rather only by the then-public security minister and others,” it said, according to Channel 12.

On Monday night, Channel 12 published a report revealing that Shai Nitzan, the state attorney at the time, had suppressed evidence that would have challenged Alsheich’s assertion that Abu al-Qia’an was a terrorist.

In an email from 2018, Nitzan said that highlighting differences between the state attorney’s office and the police “will only do good for those who want to do [harm] to the law enforcement system,” a seeming reference to attacks by the prime minister and his supporters on the criminal justice system amid the investigations against him.

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

“We know the truth. We knew it from the first moment, because we all know who Yaqoub was. Yaqoub — a beloved leader, educator, father and brother — was murdered in cold blood,” Yaqoub’s brother Jabr said in a statement Tuesday.

Yaqoub’s widow, Amal, said Tuesday evening that the apology was “better late than never” but asked “why couldn’t they have told the truth at the time?” She said her husband was “an educator who represented Israel overseas and didn’t hate anybody.”

Almost four years later, she said, her family still has no home, since their home was demolished. “We have been done a lifelong injustice,” she said.

After Netanyahu delivered his statement, the Israel Police on Tuesday night 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.”

Netanyahu, who is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, has used the Channel 12 report to criticize the legal proceedings against him, repeating longstanding allegations that the police conspired with other law-enforcement agencies, media and opposition politicians to frame him for corruption.

“Yesterday we learned that senior officials in the State Attorney’s Office and the police made Abu al-Qia’an out to be a terrorist so that they could defend themselves and attack me,” Netanyahu said Tuesday.

Some in the opposition have accused Netanyahu of political opportunism, noting that the evidence against the claim of Abu al-Qia’an being a terrorist had been there for years.

“Netanyahu and his associates were the ones who turned Abu al-Qia’an into a ‘terrorist’ — them and their racist incitement against Arabs,” said Joint List MK Aida Touma-Suleiman.”If Netanyahu really wants to apologize, he has only one option — to resign.”

Aaron Boxerman and AP contributed to this report.

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