Case Against Policemen Who Assaulted Israeli Arab Lawmaker Dropped

Only two policemen received disciplinary action despite the Justice of Ministry questioning 10 for potential involvement in the 2017 assault

MK Ayman Odeh pictured after being injured during the evacuation of the Bedouin town of Umm al-Hiran, January 18, 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct has recommended that the cases against the policemen involved in the 2017 assault on Joint List chairman MK Ayman Odeh in Umm al-Hiran be closed. The unit, however, does recommend disciplinary action against two policemen, one of them a superintendent who guided policemen on how to behave under investigation. The recommendations were submitted to State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan several months ago, but he has not ruled on the matter.

"Police violently and consciously attacked a member of Knesset, and nothing has been done about it for over a year," Odeh said after the recommendations were disclosed. "There is no real intention of finding out what really happened on that day."

The confrontation between the policemen and Odeh occurred in January 2017 at the village of Umm al-Hiran, following the incident in which policeman Erez Levy and resident Yakub Abu al-Kiyan were killed. Odeh and others were trying to reach the scene of the shooting. This was declared a security zone with restricted access. In a video shot by an Al Jazeera correspondent, a policeman is seen pepper-spraying Odeh. Odeh said policemen then fired sponge-tipped bullets at his group, one of which hit his head. He was later treated in a hospital.

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A law enforcement source told Haaretz that the investigation was characterized by foot-dragging. The policemen who fired sponge-tipped bullets were only questioned five months after the incident. The use of pepper spray was only investigated after a further five months. The Justice Ministry unit questioned 10 policemen under caution. The policeman who was killed – by the car driven by Abu al-Kiyan, who was shot to death by policemen – was one of their colleagues.

The investigation first focused on the sponge-tipped bullets. The police rebutted Odeh’s claim that he was hit by one, arguing that no fire was directed at him and that he was hit by stones thrown by protesters. A medical report could not determine what caused his wound, and questions remain.

Haaretz has learned that none of the policemen had mentioned the confrontation with Odeh in his report, and investigators could not identify who used the pepper spray, even though the entire incident was documented on videotape. All the policemen had their faces hidden at the time. One senior police officer identified his men on the video and they were summoned for questioning. They claimed they did not know who had used the pepper spray. The lack of credibility behind these claims led to an obstruction of justice investigation as well.

The policeman who used the pepper spray was ultimately identified and questioned. He confessed immediately, according to knowledgeable sources. He said he repeatedly asked Odeh and the others to leave, believing the car-ramming was a terror attack – which a Shin Bet investigator later contradicted – and because of protests by other Bedouin. The policeman said that when he was ignored, he used the least aggressive method he had for crowd control. It later appeared that some of the policemen involved disrupted the investigation, with an officer advising some of them, including men under his direct command, on how to behave under questioning. This officer used the unit’s WhatsApp group to share a video that he was shown in his first questioning session, when he was asked to identify the men involved in the incident. In this matter, the unit recommended disciplinary action against him and another policeman.

The Justice Ministry unit ultimately decided that it was not possible to determine that Odeh had been hit by a bullet and that criminal charges against the pepper-spraying policeman were unwarranted. No criminal charges regarding obstruction of justice were recommended either, since the WhatsApp video was also available on YouTube, and only disciplinary action was recommended.

The Bartal Cohen law office, which represented the pepper-spraying policeman and others involved in the incident, said, “The policeman had immediately and voluntarily provided the information that he was the one who had to use pepper spray in order to remove Odeh and others, who did not hesitate to confront policemen, with shoving and cursing, in attempting to reach the scene, counter to clear instructions to stay away. Under these circumstances and with the location declared a terror attack scene, the use of pepper spray was legitimate and proportionate. Instead of investigating Odeh for assaulting policemen and obstructing them, he’s once again exploiting the Justice Ministry’s unit for making political gains, as he did with the story of the sponge-tipped bullet that never happened.”

Attorney Or Tamir, who represented the officer suspected of obstruction and others, said he approached the State Prosecution several times in recent months to find out about the status of the case, but had received no reply. “This is unjustified dragging out of the policemen’s anguish. They were all questioned and denied the suspicions raised against them.”