Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly apologized on Tuesday night for the Israeli government’s claim that a Bedouin teacher shot dead by police was a terrorist.
“I would like to express, in my name, my apologies to the Al-Qi’an family. They [the police] said he was a terrorist. Yesterday, it turned out that he wasn’t a terrorist,” Netanyahu said.
Yaqoub 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.
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.
On Monday night, Channel 12 reporter Amit Segal 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 evil 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, used Segal’s revelations to criticize the legal proceedings against him.
“What we’ve seen is an amazing thing: There are [existing] political investigations, investigations that were tainted from the get-go,” he said.
“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.
He repeated longstanding allegations that the police had conspired with other law-enforcement agencies, media and opposition politicians to frame him for corruption. “The entire chain of command is involved: senior investigators, the chief of police, the state attorney, and everything is sanctioned and authorized by the attorney general,” Netanyahu said. “This was not an investigation. This is a corrupt political conspiracy to topple a prime minister.”
Some in the opposition 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.”
Jabr Abu Al-Qia’an told The Times of Israel that he hoped Netanyahu was not merely exploiting his brother’s memory. He said he hoped Netanyahu’s apology would lead to more concrete support for the Abu Al-Qia’an family.
The Abu Al-Qia’ans are currently petitioning the High Court of Justice to reopen the investigation and to try the police officers involved in the shooting.
“This is a first step. I can’t say if Netanyahu’s apology was real. But we want to see actions: Compensating the family, opening the investigation, and prosecuting those involved,” Abu Al-Qia’an said. “The state should provide housing for his children, whose home was destroyed by the state in Umm al-Hiran.”
Evidence of his brother’s innocence has been around for years. A month after the case was closed, Haaretz reported that the Shin Bet security service had concluded within 48 hours that the incident had not been a premeditated attack on police.
Subsequent investigations by the Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) and the State’s Attorney’s Office found no strong evidence that Abu al-Qia’an had sought to commit a terror attack.
Still, it was only on Tuesday, nearly three and a half years after Abu Al-Qi’an was shot outside of his village by police, that his family’s claim that he was innocent received widespread public vindication.
Segal’s report launched a wave of public apologies by right-wing figures who have held that Abu Al-Qia’an was a terrorist who died attempting to run over a police officer with his car.
“I, too, must apologize — there’s no shame in that. I was wrong and I was part of the injustice done to the Abu Al-Qia’an family. When we err, we must try to mend,” Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich said.
Alsheikh, Erdan and Nitzan, all of whom publicly asserted that Abu al-Qia’an committed a terror attack, had yet to comment as of Tuesday night.
AP contributed to this report.