Shin Bet calls report it refused to help Umm al-Hiran probe ‘spurious, absurd’
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Shin Bet calls report it refused to help Umm al-Hiran probe ‘spurious, absurd’

Security agency issues rare, scathing rebuke of Israel Hayom article about fatal 2017 shooting of Bedouin man which caused his car to crash into a police officer, killing him

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The car of Yaqoub Abu al-Qia'an, following an incident initially claimed by police to be a terrorist attack, in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, southern Israel, January 18, 2017. Evidence subsequently came out that showed the incident was not a terrorist attack (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The car of Yaqoub Abu al-Qia'an, following an incident initially claimed by police to be a terrorist attack, in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev desert, southern Israel, January 18, 2017. Evidence subsequently came out that showed the incident was not a terrorist attack (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Shin Bet security service on Wednesday issued a rare, full-throated denial in response to an article published by the Israel Hayom newspaper that claimed the head of the agency barred an officer from testifying in an investigation into the fatal shooting of a Bedouin man who was later falsely accused of being a terrorist.

“The Shin Bet security service denies — in every way, shape and form — the spurious claim that the head of the Shin Bet forbade the ‘official leading the investigation into the incident’ at Umm al-Hiran from ‘appearing before the Police Internal Investigations Department,'” the service said in a statement quoting from the newspaper report.

In January 2017, Yaqoub Abu al-Qia’an was shot by police when officers arrived to oversee the demolition of homes in his village of Umm al-Hiran, an unrecognized Bedouin village that the state was razing to clear 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 with no apparent just cause. After being shot, he apparently lost control of his car, which accelerated downhill and rammed into a group of officers, killing one of them, Erez Levi, as can be seen in video footage from the scene.

After the incident, then-Israel Police chief Roni Alsheikh and then-public security minister Gilad Erdan repeatedly called Abu al-Qia’an a terrorist and insinuated that he belonged to the Islamic State, based on shoddy evidence.

Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an (Courtesy)

The Shin Bet security service rejected these findings, determining within a month that the ramming was not a deliberate attack and that Abu al-Qia’an was not a terrorist.

The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID), known by its Hebrew acronym Mahash, was called on to investigate the shooting and ultimately decided to close the case against the officers involved, absolving them of wrongdoing.

According to the unsourced Israel Hayom report, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman prevented the lead Shin Bet investigator in the case from speaking to PIID and refuting police’s findings that the ramming had been a deliberate attack, and not — as it was later determined — a tragic, fatal accident caused by the police themselves.

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

In its statement, the Shin Bet roundly rejected the article’s central claims, saying the security service had worked closely with PIID throughout the probe and had “not refused any requests from investigators.

“The Shin Bet thoroughly condemns all bizarre efforts to attribute any motives to the agency that are not appropriate while making cynical use of past cases,” the security service said.

“We reject — with disgust — all attempts to defame [the Shin Bet],” the statement said.

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 Umm al-Hiran case came back to the national discourse this week, after 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 [harm] to the law enforcement system,” a seeming reference to attacks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters on the criminal justice system amid the investigations against him.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has used Segal’s report as part of his ongoing campaign against the police and the state attorney’s office, who have indicted the premier on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of public trust.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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