Family to petition High Court for case to be reopened

Probe shows Bedouin man was shot by police in 2017 for no reason, left to die

Details from investigation into incident in Umm al-Hiran in which Yaqoub Abu Al-Qia’an and policeman Erez Levi were killed show multiple failures by forces at the scene

Michael Bachner is a 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)

Newly published evidence from the investigation of a deadly January 2017 incident in the Bedouin town of Umm al-Hiran allegedly shows that a local man was unlawfully shot and then left to bleed to death, as police mistakenly accused him of committing a car-ramming attack.

The State Attorney’s Office in 2018 closed an investigation into the incident, saying it could not determine whether Yaqoub Mousa Abu Al-Qia’an had committed an act of terrorism, after reviewing the entire investigation material. The investigation, led by State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, had determined at the time that officers who shot Abu Al-Qia’an moments before his car ran into officer Erez Levi were not suspected of a criminal offense, and had acted legally when they opened fire.

However, the Shin Bet was reported the following month to have ruled out terrorism in the incident.

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

Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Courtesy)

The new details were published Saturday night by several Israeli news outlets, and appeared to be based on an examination by physicist and biologist Dr. Ariel Livne of investigation material provided by the Shin Bet and the Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID).

The conclusions are being used by two rights groups that are legally representing Abu Al-Qia’an’s family, Adalah and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), as the basis for a petition they say they will be filing this week to the High Court of Justice.

The organizations said in a statement Saturday that they will demand that a criminal investigation be reopened into the conduct of the police officers and medics at the scene, and that Abu-Al Qia’an be formally cleared of the “terrorist” branding.

The incident occurred 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 town on January 18, 2017, 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 the vehicle his was driving then accelerated downhill and 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 institutional racism against Arabs, including Bedouin.

On Saturday, three simultaneous reports were published by the Kan public Broadcaster and the Haaretz and Sicha Mekomit news websites, each not citing sources for most of the information but featuring very similar details of the investigation and quoting a reaction by PCATI.

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

The reports included hitherto unseen footage taken by officers at the scene, as well as transcripts from the questioning — initially by the Shin Bet and later by the PIID — of police officers and medics who were there. The material, banded together, indicates multiple failures that led to Abu Al-Qia’an’s unnecessary death.

The Shin Bet 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 Police Internal Investigations Department were accused by then-Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich of burying the Shin Bet document.

State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan speaks at the annual Justice Conference in Airport City, outside Tel Aviv on September 3, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The PIID, which is under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry and not the police, 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.

New footage from the minutes after Abu-Al-Qia’an was shot show him lying bleeding next to his car for dozens of minutes, changing positions — indicating he had been alive — with police officers and medics standing several meters from him and not providing medical treatment. Some later said they assumed him to be an assailant who intentionally ran over Levi.

In one clip, an officer walks past Abu Al-Qia’an and shouts: “You son of a bitch.”

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

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 earlier 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.

Police Chief Roni Alsheich (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at a welcoming ceremony held in Alsheich’s honour, at Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, on December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

In the months following the attack, police doubled down on the claim that Abu Al-Qia’an had deliberately run over and killed the officer.

Alsheich said at the time that there were indications he was involved with the Islamic State terror group.

However, the new details revealed Saturday show that those 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.”

PIID investigators found no incriminating evidence in Abu Al-Qia’an’s computers, and learned that police had had no early indications of a potential attack during the planned evacuation.

Shin Bet investigators spoke with Abu Al-Qia’an’s father, son and nephew, who all said Yaqoub had told them to refrain from violence and let the forces demolish the home, and that there was nothing to be done against the government’s plans.

That led to a Shin Bet conclusion that Abu Al-Qia’an had no connection to terror groups, and that he had accepted that his home was going to be demolished.

According to the reports, the police officer who shot Abu Al-Qia’an — named only by the first Hebrew-language letter of his first name, “Shin” — told a Shin Bet investigator named Taher shortly after the incident that he had not felt in danger when he fired the shots. Later, he changed his testimony, saying he had felt immediate danger and was forced to shoot.

“The driver turned on the car’s lights and started to slowly drive toward the fighters,” Shin told Taher. “I raised my weapon and fired precise shots toward the tires to stop the vehicle. At that stage I hadn’t felt immediate danger to my life or my friends’ lives, because in that case I would have shot to kill. I fired the shots because the driver did not listen to our orders to stop and I feared he would hurt fighters.”

Taher remarked that “Shin claimed the jeep driver could have rammed them while they made their way uphill, but didn’t do that for his own reasons.”

Another Shin Bet investigator, named Ziad, wrote, “I was told by the officer Shin that he had fired toward the tires and later toward the driver.”

According to the investigation, the police medics at the scene first attempted to treat officer Levi but pronounced him dead within a few minutes. They then treated another officer who suffered mild injuries, but for 50 minutes — until they left the scene — never approached Abu Al-Qia’an.

Dr. Maya Forman, who heads the National Institute of Forensic Medicine, determined the cause of death to be “failure to receive medical treatment.” The autopsy report said: “Bleeding from the blood vessels that were damaged in this case does not cause immediate death, and could cause death within dozens of minutes.

Dr. Raphael Walden, deputy director of Sheba Medical Center, said he was “shocked” when he saw the report. “A simple dressing of the wound could have saved his life. This was external bleeding, not internal.”

The police doctor told PIID investigators that she had not seen Abu Al-Qia’an or been aware that there was another wounded person at the scene, only learning that hours later.

“I didn’t see him, I am 100 percent sure,” she said in her testimony. When asked how she didn’t see him when she was so close to him, the doctor added: “It was very dark, there were no lights. There was a whole commotion because our forces thought there had been a terror attack. I didn’t see, I was busy treating the officers.”

Contradicting her, another medic at the scene said that he and the doctor had in fact both noticed Abu Al-Qia’an 15 minutes after they were done treating the policemen, believing him to be dead.

“I didn’t treat him and didn’t see any medic approaching him,” he testified. “I work by orders, and the doctor didn’t tell me to treat him. Looking at him I thought he was dead. I can say with certainty that the doctor saw his body, I think the cause of death was gunfire.”

The PIID investigator then told him: “He didn’t die from gunfire. The guy died of blood loss over dozens of minutes. That means that had you been aware and done your jobs, he wouldn’t have died. Do you understand the ramifications?”

The medic replied: “Sad. It’s easy to talk now, but at the scene it was believed to be a terror attack.”

The car used in an alleged car ramming attack, killing an Israeli policeman, 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)

Also according to the testimony, the medic initially said he had learned it was a suspected car-ramming attack only when he was back at the police station, but later changed his testimony and said he had “remembered” that he had already known that at the scene.

“The reason I didn’t approach the dead civilian was because there had been a car-ramming, therefore since he is a ‘terrorist’ police safety protocol is not to treat the terrorist since his body could be booby-trapped,” he said.

Another medic claimed he hadn’t seen Abu-Al Qia’an, despite being filmed near him over several minutes.

A Magen David Adom paramedic testified that he was told by the doctor at the scene that there were two bodies, one of a policeman and one of a car-rammer — again contradicting the doctor’s testimony.

“Umm Al-Hiran is an open, bleeding wound in the relationship between the citizens and police in Israel,” the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel said in a statement Saturday. “A civilian and a policeman were killed unnecessarily, and the PIID investigation was closed without a criminal investigation. The police commissioner and the public security minister claimed publicly that this was a terror attack, in spite of all the evidence.

“This affair… is a watershed in the relationship between the police and the Bedouin population in particular and the Israel public in general. In order to begin to repair this fraught relationship, we must first of all return to Umm al-Hiran, bring the policemen to justice, and provide the families of the victims with redress.”

The police force commented that “this is an unfortunate incident, during which a police officer was rammed to death and another officer was injured and additionally the ramming driver was killed after being neutralized by the officers — all during an operation that was being carried out legally at the place.

“The PIID probe unequivocally concluded that there was no suspicion of criminal offenses committed by any of the police officer who were operating in the field under complex conditions,” it added.

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