Police minister calls for fresh probe into 2017 killing of Bedouin teacher

Amir Ohana questions claim that Yaqoub Abu Al-Qia’an was shot during attack at Umm al-Hiran, as PM’s allies seize on report alleging coverup by ex-prosecutor

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)

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana called Monday for a review of the police findings in the controversial case of a Bedouin man who was shot dead in 2017 by police who said he was carrying out a terror attack.

Whereas police have continued to claim that Yaqoub Abu Al-Qia’an was killed while carrying out a car-ramming attack during a pre-dawn police operation to raze part of his village of Umm al-Hiran in 2017, investigations by the Shin Bet security organization and the Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) have cast doubt on that allegation, finding indications that he lost control of the vehicle after being mistakenly shot. An officer was killed when he was run over by the car.

Ohana, whose ministry is in charge of police, told the Haaretz daily that the matter should be opened again in the wake of a television news report Monday that raised questions about police handling of the affair. The report alleged that then-state prosecutor Shai Nitzan closed probes into alleged police wrongdoing, including in this case, out of fears it could tarnish the image of law enforcement as it was investigating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for corruption.

Netanyahu called the Channel 12 news report a “bombshell,” and several Likud figures have called for probes into alleged police misconduct and for the charges against the premier to be reexamined or dropped.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana speaks during a press conference at the Public Security Ministry on July 15, 2020. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Among the probes closed by Nitzan was one into police actions surrounding Abu Al-Qia’an’s death.

According to Haaretz, Ohana’s comments are the first time that a government official has publicly questioned the police version that Abu Al-Qia’an died during a terror attack.

Ohana, a staunch ally of Netanyahu, has backed the prime minister in his claims that the cases against him are a conspiracy by law enforcers and the media. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in all three of the cases in which he has been charged.

Ohana, a former justice minister, has in the past called for a criminal investigation into Nitzan claiming he accessed the Justice Ministry’s computer systems after having left his post.

Former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan speaks at the Calcalist conference in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Channel 12 news reported that senior law enforcement officials have filed a complaint with the state comptroller alleging that senior police officers and the state prosecutor engaged in a widespread cover-up of a serious conflict of interest by one of the investigators into Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in order not to derail the corruption investigations into the premier.

The claims revolved around the extramarital relationship between investigator Superintendent Avi Rotenberg and Judy Nir-Mozes, the sister of a key figure in one of the three corruption cases against Netanyahu.

The television report also revealed also that Nitzan prevented an investigation into former police chief Roni Alsheich over the Umm al-Hiran incident, fearing that this too could undermine the Netanyahu investigations.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of the Blue and White party in a tweet Tuesday morning dismissed the calls and “conspiracy theories” that the Netanyahu cases are drummed up, saying they were just part of incitement against law enforcers that aims to “crush the system of rule of law.”

He said he accepted the denial of wrongdoing issued by the Police Internal Investigations Division, or PIID, which is a Justice Ministry unit.

Following the 2017 incident, Alsheich reportedly leaked to several news outlets false information claiming that the PIID was hiding evidence proving that the victim had ties to terror groups.

The head of the PIID at the time, Uri Carmel, sent a letter to the-then state prosecutor Shai Nitzan expressing outrage over Alsheich’s conduct.

Nitzan responded in an email leaked to Channel 12 that while he too was disturbed by the “scandalous” actions of the police chief, “there are national interests that also must be taken into consideration,” seemingly referencing the ongoing attacks against the law enforcement system led by Netanyahu and his supporters, for which Nitzan did not want to provide more ammunition.

Nitzan also wrote that he was concerned highlighting a dispute between the prosecution and police “will only do good for those who want to do evil to the law enforcement system.”

Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Courtesy)

Channel 12 reached out to Nitzan for comment, without mentioning that it had the email in question in its possession. The former state prosecutor said allegations that he had prevented a probe of Alsheich’s alleged wrongdoing were “false lies.”

Abu Al-Qia’an was killed when police arrived to oversee the demolition of homes in Umm al-Hiran, an unrecognized village that the state had been removing in order to clear the way for a new Jewish town.

As officers converged on the village on January 18, 2017, 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 it be razed. Soon afterward, Abu Al-Qia’an was shot by police, causing him to lose control of his vehicle, which then accelerated downhill and rammed into a group of officers.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Alsheich and then public security minister Gilad Erdan attempted to portray Abu Al-Qia’an as a terrorist with links to the Islamic State. However, a report earlier this year found the claims were based only on the presence of standard religious Muslim textbooks in Abu Al-Qia’an’s home, along with three copies of that morning’s Israel Hayom newspaper — the country’s most widely circulating daily — with the headline in Hebrew: “Islamic State bomb downs a plane.”

The State Attorney’s Office in 2018 closed an investigation into the event, saying it could not determine whether Abu Al-Qia’an had committed an act of terrorism, after reviewing all of the investigation material.

Former chief of Israel Police Roni Alsheikh at a conference in Kfar Maccabiah, Ramat Gan, January 8, 2019. (Flash90)

The investigation, led by Nitzan, had determined at the time that officers who shot Abu Al-Qia’an moments before his car ran into and killed officer Erez Levi were not suspected of a criminal offense, and had acted legally when they opened fire.

A month after the case was closed Haaretz reported that the Shin Bet security service was said to have concluded within 48 hours that the incident hadn’t been a premeditated attack on police, ending its investigation and handing it over to the PIID.

When it came out, the Shin Bet document caused turmoil among police brass, the Shin Bet and the Justice Ministry, prompting the reopening of the investigation after an internal police probe had cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing in August 2017.

Nitzan ordered the fresh investigation after investigators with the PIID were accused by Alsheich of burying the Shin Bet document.

The Haaretz report at the time said senior Shin Bet officials were surprised and baffled to learn that Alsheich had knowledge of the document when it was compiled. The police chief had mistakenly expected it to determine that the incident had been a terror attack, according to the report.

The PIID reopened its investigation and re-questioned the officers who were at the scene, submitting its revised findings — apparently contradicting the Shin Bet document — to Nitzan in December 2017. Nitzan closed the case in May 2018.

Bedouin women react to the destruction of houses on January 18, 2017, in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Earlier this year Hebrew media reported that a PIID investigation into the incident had found that Abu Al-Qia’an was unlawfully shot and then left to bleed to death, as police mistakenly accused him of committing the car-ramming attack. The PIID report has not been published.

In August Abu Al-Qia’an’s family filed a NIS 17 million ($5 million) lawsuit against the Israel Police claiming that failures by the force caused the deadly incident.

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