Cop Who Opened Fire at Bedouin Village Said He Didn't Fear for His Life, Then Changed His Story

S. also told Shin Bet officer at the scene he aimed at center of vehicle and not only at the tires, contradicting his later testimony about the fatal incident during evacuation of Umm al-Hiran in January 2017

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Israeli Police enter the Negev Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in order to evacuate and demolish it, January 18, 2017.
Israel Police entering Umm al-Hiran in advance of the evacuation, on January 18, 2017.Credit: Keren Manor / Activestills
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Police officer S., who fired the first bullets at the car of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, the teacher slain by police during the evacuation of the Bedouin village Umm al-Hiran in January 2017, admitted a few hours after the incident that he did not feel his life was in danger.

His remark, made to a Shin Bet security service coordinator, contradicted his testimony to investigators from the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct.

S. also told the Shin Bet officer that he had aimed at the center of the vehicle and not only at the tires – again, contradicting three testimonies he gave to the Justice Ministry investigators. As reported in Haaretz, despite changing his statement and the Justice Ministry’s demand that S. be investigated on suspicion of negligent homicide, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan decided to close the case and not investigate any of the police officers involved in the fatal shooting.

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During the incident, Abu al-Kiyan’s vehicle ran into police officers at the scene, killing police officer Erez Levy.

Credit: Forensic Architecture

S., who has served for 12 years in a police unit that coordinates enforcement activities, was questioned three times over the events that night at the Negev Bedouin village.

The first round of questioning took place at the Negev police district’s central unit, about 14 hours after the incident, followed by two more sessions about a week later in the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct.

After the three rounds of questioning, the Justice Ministry was considering closing the case, but then-Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich insisted that Abu al-Kiyan had deliberately killed Levy by ramming his car into the policeman, and that the Shin Bet had a report proving it. This led the prosecution to request the materials from the Shin Bet.

Israel Police officers next to the vehicle driven by Yakub Abu al-Kiyan in Umm al-Hiran on January 18, 2017. Credit: Tsafrir Abayov / AP

A few days later, when the Justice Ministry unit received the material, they discovered that it included a conversation between S. and a Shin Bet officer on the night of the incident. S. told the Shin Bet officer, known as “Taher,” that he did not fear for his life or the lives of his colleagues on account of Abu al-Kiyan’s driving. He told “Taher” that Abu al-Kiyan had not responded to calls to stop and he admitted that he had aimed both at the center of the vehicle and at the tires. Based on this, the Shin Bet determined that Abu al-Kiyan had not tried to hit Levy with his car, but had lost control of the vehicle as a result of improper actions by the police at the scene.

Justice Ministry investigators were reportedly shocked at the report, which indicated that S. had not feared for his life. It also emerged that S. had fired to hit Abu al-Kiyan, and not, as he had told investigators time after time, only to hit the tires. In the wake of this report, the head of the Justice Ministry unit at the time, Uri Carmel, demanded that S. be investigated on suspicion of negligent homicide, as well as giving a false statement.

The Justice Ministry unit realized that even if the bullets that struck Abu al-Kiyan were not from S.’s weapon, when he fired he set off a chain reaction of dozens of bullets being fired and Abu al-Kiyan’s vehicle running over and killing Levy. Abu al-Kiyan may have tried to evade the bullets when the vehicle was fired on, or he may have hit the gas pedal. Although these suppositions can’t be proven, it is clear that S.’s statements to the police contradict what he told the Shin Bet.

Despite the new evidence, Nitzan said that because of the unclear legal standing of S.’s conversation with “Taher,” the Shin Bet report was inadmissible as part of the investigation. This went against the Justice Ministry unit’s recommendation that S. be questioned under caution, which meant he could be accused of a crime. And in light of Alsheich’s continued insistence that the incident be framed as an intentional vehicle-ramming, Nitzan ordered the case closed.

Umm al-Hiran is one of 35 Palestinian Bedouin villages that is unrecognised by Israel. Those villages are not shown on maps, and are not served by infrastructure.Credit: Forensic Architecture

The State Prosecutor's Office said that contrary to this report, the Shin Bet account of the conversation with S. was delivered to investigators right from the probe's beginning, and was reviewed along with evidence and materials.

The response also said it was omitted that S. said he was afraid the vehicle would hit other officers headed for the compound, which prompted him to open fire at the wheels after it drove by.

S. changes his story

On January 18, 2017, the night Umm al-Hiran was evacuated, S. climbed the path toward the house of Abu al-Kiyan, a local teacher, which he had been ordered to evacuate. In complete darkness, S., the commander, M., and another policeman in the unit, R., went up on the left side of the path leading to the home. Abu al-Kiyan’s car appeared opposite them and drove past them to their right.

“At some point I heard calls, ‘Stop, police,’” S. said in his first questioning by police. “I heard officer R. cock his gun and I saw a pair of headlights driving slowly in our direction. I motioned with my flashlight for it to stop and I yelled, ‘Stop, police.’ I saw R. jump aside so the car wouldn’t hit him. The car was not driving fast and so I couldn’t tell whether it was a terrorist or a vehicle ramming. When the car came close to me and didn’t obey the order to stop, and when it was a meter and a half from me, I felt my life was in danger and I had to evade it to the side so as not to be hit and I decided to fire at the front and back wheels of the car.”

S., who was armed with an M-16 rifle, told police that the car had accelerated, so he believed it was an attack. “As the car sped up I heard and saw the police were firing on it and I saw it jump in the air, hitting two policemen.”

Forensic Architecture's digital rendering, based on multiple video sources, of the position of people present at Umm al-Hiran on January 18, 2017.Credit: Forensic Architecture

In S.’s second testimony, taken a week later, he made similar statements. But during that second session he revealed failings in the planning of the evacuation. “We didn’t know what we were heading for, we didn’t know critical details about the demolition, we didn’t know what the compound looked like, we didn’t know how big it was and we didn’t see approach roads. They showed us an aerial photo on WhatsApp and we could hardly see where the compound was. The conduct was improper,” he said.

He described the shooting somewhat differently that time – what he had described as an “evasion to the side” in his first questioning, became the more dramatic “jumping.” “I was afraid that if I didn’t jump at that moment, the car could run us over. When I realized that the car did not intend to stop, I reached the point where I felt my life was in danger. At this point I took no chances and I moved quickly to the left and ran from the front of the car. I knew that the car had to be stopped because it refused every call to stop. Without hesitating I took the safety off. I was aware that I was supposed to fire in the air, but the situation I was in and the [way the] car was driving, that wasn’t possible. I don’t know how many bullets I fired. I just fired a barrage at the front and back wheel, … when the car passed me I heard the sound of the motor accelerating.” This session of questioning then ended so S. could attend the memorial service for his friend, officer Levy.

The next day S. was questioned again. Investigators asked him: “You told us yesterday that you felt your life was in danger. Can you explain what you meant in detail?” He responded: “After I saw officer R. jump so the driver wouldn’t run him over, the vehicle continued toward me. I waved my flashlight that’s attached to the M-16 but the driver kept going. At that moment I understood I was in clear and present danger. I fled to the side and understood that I had to stop the car so it won’t endanger other cops more than it had already.” During this session, S. said he heard the first officer, M. strike the vehicle, and it kept going.

When the interrogator challenged S., saying that he had said the car was approaching slowly, S. began to defend himself. “The car was coming toward me [at] not the slowest and not the fastest [speed], but it was coming toward me such that I felt my life was in danger.”

The interrogator then said: “So what was it, slow speed or not fast, what exactly?” S. responded: “I told the police ‘slow speed.’ It’s important to note that I still said the word ‘speed’ because the car was coming toward me. That is, I saw how it was coming fast, I couldn’t say that it was driving toward me. I mean that the speed in which the driver was coming toward me was relatively slow compared to what it was afterward.”

The interrogator went on: “How do you explain that officers in front of you saw what you saw and didn’t fire? This weakens your claim that you were in danger for your life?” S. replied: “I can’t explain why they responded the way they did. When I felt my life was in danger, I acted in an acceptable manner. … Unfortunately the facts speak for themselves that the car had to be stopped.”

The site of Umm al-Hiran, February 4, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

The investigator then noted that neither officer R. not officer M. fired even a warning shot. “Could it be that you were hasty?” she asked. S. responded that he was “as cautious as could be. I knew that I was taking a chance, that I was acting not according to procedure that requires firing in the air, but despite the concern I knew and I felt clear and present danger to my life. ... There was no other way to stop the car.”

The Justice Ministry unit recreated the incident using cameras and drones and a car similar to the one Abu al-Kayan was driving, and had the footage analyzed by engineers. The conclusion was that until S. fired, Abu al-Kiyan was going only 10 kilometers an hour and his maximum speed reached 50 kilometers an hour. When Abu al-Kiyan began to accelerate, he was driving at most 16 kilometers an hour.

When Abu al-Kiyan’s car struck the policemen, the analysis showed that it was going 50 kilometers an hour. The investigators concluded that this was not a terror attack and that S.’s shots led the rest of the officers to fire at the car. There is no doubt that S.’s bullets were not the ones that struck Abu al-Kiyan, but he was the one who started the chain reaction that led to Abu al-Kiyan’s being shot to death in the back.

Moreover, it emerged that Abu al-Kiyan left his home with his belongings in his car and the lights on. These findings, besides the slow speed at which Abu al-Kiyan was driving, led investigators to conclude that he was not trying to carry out a terror attack but rather wanted to leave his home before it was demolished.

More evidence of the chaos that night was obtained from the body camera of one of the police at the scene, which recorded the seconds after officer Levy was run over. The officer wearing the body camera, G., was walking in the opposite direction of S., M. and R. “What was that?” G. is heard asking after three shots were heard following a series of shots fired at the scene. Shortly after that, Abu al-Kiyan’s car is seen driving fast and turning right. The firing continues. The car stops after hitting a police car, and G. tries unsuccessfully to stop the shooting.

G., accompanied by other policemen, approach Abu al-Kiyan’s car. The driver’s head can be seen in the window. Only two of the dozens of bullets fired struck him, and he was dying at that point, but not yet dead. Nevertheless, over the police radio he is described as dead. A doctor at the scene gave him no treatment. Apparently because the car struck a police vehicle, its horn continued to blare for an hour after the incident. One of the policemen opens the door and pulls Abu al-Kiyan out onto the ground, leaving one of his legs still in the car.

“Medic!” the police around Levy’s body shout, and G. joins them, shocked to discover his friend had been struck. G. then curses in Arabic. Chaos takes over and the police who fear that the attack was terrorist prepared for the presence of other terrorists at the scene. It seems that no one thought that the car had run Levy over by accident. Tension ran high. “Keep your eyes open, guys,” the police are heard shouting.

G. began to look unsuccessfully for a flare, going from car to car. The scene was in utter darkness, lit only slightly by the police cars’ headlights. Two minutes after Levy was run over, more shots are heard. “Don’t shoot, it’s a cop,” G. shouts, still trying to find a flare. Meanwhile, Levy is pronounced dead. Abu al-Kiyan continues to bleed to death; no one offered him medical assistance.

The State Prosecutor’s office commented: “After reviewing the investigative material and the findings of the Police Investigation Unit, the State Prosecutor decided to end the comprehensive investigation on the basis that there is no reasonable suspicion of criminal offenses by the policemen involved in the incident. It should be noted in the decision that the action of the officers, which stemmed apparently from a feeling of their life being in danger, a feeling that stemmed from the circumstances of the event, does not exceed the realm of reason to legally justify the use of arms.”

The Shin Bet commented: “All the investigative material in the possession of the security service was provided to the Police Investigation Unit. Given that the Police Investigation Unit handled the probe, we cannot comment on its details.”

Attorney Noa Levy of the Committee Against Torture, which represents the Abu al-Kiyan family, commented: “The Umm al-Fahm incidents constituted a severe blow to trust between the government and its citizens. We of the Committee Against Torture, together with all victims of police violence in the incident, demand justice be done and that the officers responsible for the killing of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan be tired for attacking village residents and firing a sponge-tipped bullet at MK Ayman Odeh’s head.” 

The law office of Bertal Cohen, which is representing the police officers in the enforcement coordination unit, responded: “To the best of our knowledge, the reports of the security agencies present at the incident are not part of the investigative material given to the various officials seeking to obtain a Justice Ministry unit decision regarding the incident at Umm al-Hiran. The things attributed to our client, that he ostensibly stated to someone that he did not feel his life was endangered in the incident, were not said and in any case do not conform to objective reality.”

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