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Officers who killed Bedouin ‘car-rammer’ won’t be charged

Investigation into Umm al-Hiran incident closed; Justice Ministry says it can’t determine if police officer was struck in terror attack

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Israeli police stand next to a vehicle that crashed into police officers in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, January 18, 2017. (Israel Police)
Israeli police stand next to a vehicle that crashed into police officers in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, January 18, 2017. (Israel Police)

The State Attorney’s Office on Tuesday closed an investigation into a deadly incident in Umm al-Hiran last year, saying it could not determine whether a resident of the Bedouin town had deliberately attacked police officers in an act of terrorism.

The investigation led by State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan determined that officers who shot Yacoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an moments before his car ran into officer Erez Lev were not suspected of a criminal offense, and acted legally when they opened fire.

Both Abu Al-Qia’an and Lev died in the incident.

“After reviewing the materials and findings by the Police Internal Investigations Department, the investigation has ended with the determination that there is no suspicion of criminal offenses committed by the police officers involved in the incident,” Nitzan said in his decision.

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

He said the Justice Ministry was falling in line with the Shin Bet, whose investigators were unable to definitively say whether the ramming was a terror attack, and last year declined to investigate the death of Lev further.

Immediately after the January 2017 incident, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan asserted that Abu Al-Qia’an was an Islamic State-inspired terrorist who was shot at because he accelerated his vehicle toward a group of police officers, killing Lev.

Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Courtesy)

But video footage that emerged in the hours after the incident showed the officers opened fire before Abu Al-Qia’an sped up, and that his car’s lights were on during the predawn incident, contrary to early police assertions. A Channel 10 report at the time said Abu Al-Qia’an’s autopsy further revealed that a police bullet hit him in the right knee, shattering it, and possibly causing the car to accelerate.

In August, an internal police investigation cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing for shooting Abu Al-Qia’an. But two months later, Nitzan ordered a fresh investigation after Police Internal Investigations Department investigators were accused of burying a Shin Bet document containing potentially incriminating eyewitness testimonies.

The PIID, which is under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry and not police, denied the claim, but reopened its investigation and re-questioned the officers at the scene, submitting its revised findings to Nitzan in December.

Welcoming Nitzan’s decision on Tuesday, police asserted that their original findings “fully matched” their initial report.

In the months following the attack, police doubled down on Erdan’s initial claim that Abu Al-Qia’an deliberately ran over and killed the officer. In November, police spokeswoman Meirav Lapidot told journalists that police “had reasons” for concluding the incident was terrorism, and said they had “never changed” their version of events.

The incident occurred when police arrived to oversee the demolition of homes in Umm al-Hiran, an unrecognized village that the state is removing in order to clear the way for a new Jewish town.

As officers converged on the town, 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 and his vehicle rammed into a group of officers.

Activists and others said police had used excessive force in Umm al-Hiran, pointing to what they claimed was institutionalized racism against Arabs, including Bedouin.

‘Racist decision’

The Abu Al-Qia’an family on Tuesday said they were “hurt and disappointed” by Nitzan’s decision to close the investigation.

“This is a unilateral and racist decision, we know what happened and we will not let this go until the truth will out,” Ra’ed Abu al-Qian told Hadashot TV news on behalf of the family. “He bled out because they prevented the medics from treating him, they murdered him.”

“My heart just stopped beating, we are all just so hurt and disappointed,” Abu al-Qian added.

Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan at a Likud party conference in Lod, on December 31, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

He also slammed Erdan’s claims that Abu Al-Qian was a terrorist, saying the late teacher “was an educator who preached the values of coexistence,” and accused Israeli authorities of “covering up his death, instead of telling the truth — that he was murdered in vain.”

Joint (Arab) List chairman Ayman Odeh, who was wounded by police in Umm al-Hiran on the day of the incident, also criticized Nitzan’s decision. Odeh said Erdan and Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich were “responsible for the unnecessary bloodshed on that day,” and had “orchestrated a campaign of incitement,” by claiming Al-Qian was a terrorist.

Erdan, for his part, welcomed the decision and called on the Shin Bet to reopen its investigation and present the public with its own findings on what happened on that “unfortunate day.”

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