Years After Israeli Police Killing of Arab Man, Ruling Offers Belated Justice for His Family

Court overrules Justice Ministry's investigation, ordering police to compensate family for wrongful death of their 29-year-old son Mahmoud Hayeb in 2001

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Israeli police in East Jerusalem during operations unrelated to this story, 2019.
Israeli police in East Jerusalem during operations unrelated to this story, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The Haifa Magistrate’s Court ordered the Israeli police to pay 1.3 million shekels ($377,139) to the family of a young man who was shot to death by a policeman nearly nine years ago.

The court ruled that the policeman, Dror Yaakobi, had shot Mahmoud Hayeb, 29, from Tuba-Zangaria, a Bedouin town in northern Israel, unjustifiably and in contravention of regulations. The ruling comes even though the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers had closed the case against Yaakobi shortly after the incident.

The ruling came in response to a civil suit the family filed against the police, which revealed how the policeman had repeatedly changed his version of even and how other policemen tried to obstruct the investigation.

Mahmoud Hayeb, 29, from Tuba-Zangaria, a Bedouin town in northern Israel, who was killed by a police officer in 2001.
Mahmoud Hayeb, 29, from Tuba-Zangaria, a Bedouin town in northern Israel, who was killed by a police officer in 2001.

The incident took place in November 2001. Yaakobi was a non-commissioned officer in the police in the Upper Galilee and received a report about passengers in a white Skoda who had stolen a battery from a nearby kibbutz, Hagoshrim. Yaakobi came to the area and saw a car matching that description, launched a chase during which the other car flipped over near a kayaking site on the Jordan River. Three men jumped out, and two of them started running in one direction while the third – Hayeb – ran toward the kayaking site.

Witnesses said that there was a brief confrontation between Yaakobi and Hayeb, but it isn’t clear what happened, and that subsequently Yaakobi shot Hayeb. One of the workers at the kayak site took Hayeb to his parents’ home and from there he was rushed to a clinic in Majdal Krum, where he was declared dead. An autopsy showed that a bullet hit Hayeb in the back of his thigh, causing him to lose a lot of blood.

In the first report Yaakobi gave to police, he said the incident had happened near the vehicle, and that he had shot a few times in the air during the struggle with Hayeb. But, he added, when Hayeb “continued to resist” he shot him in the legs, and then Hayeb ran from the scene.

But findings from the scene contradicted this version of events. There was no evidence of blood characteristic of a thigh wound in the area where the car was found; that was only found at the kayaking site, 150 meters away. Second, the site of the wound, the back of the thigh, wasn’t congruent with Yaakobi’s claim that he’d been face to face with Hayeb.

The offices of the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers, known by the Hebrew acronym Mahash.
The offices of the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers, known by the Hebrew acronym Mahash.Credit: Emil Salman

The next day Yaakobi was summoned to questioning at Mahash, during which he claimed he “was upset and confused” while he was giving his report to the police, and he told a different story. According to this updated version, he had struggled with two of the suspects near the car, and when he felt that they were trying to grab his pistol, he shot “a number of shots.” He later said, “During the struggle with them I fired uncontrollably so that they’d leave me alone.”

In yet a third version he told Mahash investigators that he had struggled with only one man. Despite these differing testimonies, Mahash closed the case on grounds of lack of evidence.

Hayeb’s family didn’t give up and filed a civil suit against the police. In his court testimony in December, Yaakobi presented a new version of the events, saying that he had chased Hayeb to the kayaking site. But he also described another incident that he had never reported to Mahash, which happened after the killing. In his words, before giving evidence to Mahash he spoke to the then-Border Police commander in the northern region, who is now the Border Police deputy commander, Uzi Levi, who conducted a kind of “questioning” in the field. This was against regulations, since Mahash had already launched its investigation.

“He came, questioned me about what happened, how the event unfolded,” Yaakobi told the court. “I explained everything to him. I sat with him before the statement I made to Mahash, not long after the incident. He gave me an unequivocal order not to do anything. To freeze the situation until he came. He wanted to see the details of the event to the end … the preliminary report was a report that ostensibly complied with open-fire orders, and that was a result of the policemen who came to the scene and explained to me and pressured me, ‘You’ll say this, say it this way.’ And I was very upset and under heavy pressure.” Yaakobi was asked in court if the policemen advised him to submit a version that complied with the open-fire regulations, and if he acted accordingly, and he answered yet.

A demonstration against police violence in Jaffa, June 2020.
A demonstration against police violence in Jaffa, June 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Haifa Magistrate’s Court judge Amir Salameh criticized Yaakobi’s conduct and the differing accounts of events that he had provided, saying: “The defendant said almost without noticing that before testifying to the unit that investigates police he had undergone a kind of ‘investigation’ by the border police district commander. He spoke of being questioned one-on-one and when asked what he told the district commander he replied: ‘I don’t remember what he said.’ The fact that the defendant was questioned was only revealed in cross-examination and the fact that the next day he was questioned by the investigations unit and reported a different story than what he said a minute after the incident casts doubt on his credibility and of the information he provided.”

In his court testimony Yaakobi said that what the judge called the “mood” showed how suspicions of a criminal incident can be transformed by police into a suspected terrorist incident.

“We had information that members of this ring with white helmets were perpetrating agricultural and nationalist-motivated crimes. What does nationalist mean? Theft and trade in weapons. They’re not as righteous as you paint them,” Yaakobi said.

“We had three encounters with them including chases. Unfortunately that day they fled from the Kiryat Shmona station but met me, that’s all.”

Salameh replied that “the defendant has decided from the outset of the chase that the guys sitting in the car, whose identity he didn’t know at that time, were members of a ring involved in nationalist crime ‘against us’, as he put it, and then boasts ‘they met me to their misfortune.’ The defendant assumed they were members of a dangerous armed gang even without knowing who they were, nor did he see whether they were armed and in retrospect it turns out they were unarmed. The defendant assumed those seated in the car were involved in terrorism although he had not a shred of evidence of that. This may explain why he hastened to pull out his gun and why he cocked his gun and emptied an entire magazine, and how the deceased was hit.”

'The truth is coming out'

The court found the police officer’s story that he opened fire because his life was in danger “not credible” and a story “that could not be accepted.” It also found that “The shooting was against the rules without any justification and regrettably negligent based on an assumption that the suspects were armed and dangerous people who had to be arrested at any price.”

Hayeb’s sister, Paten, told Haaretz that “my parents will not see their son returned to them by this compensation, we have still not recovered from this. They treated my bother like a murderer and the police tried to hide and cover up the incident and only now the truth is coming out. When I hear about what happened to the Hallaq family my message to them is that they not give in, that they don’t allow the authorities to hide what happened. What hurts the most is that despite it all the police officer has not been tried, he continues with his life while our brother won’t be doing so. This burns my heart.”

The Hayeb family lawyer Abed al-Karim Badarna said “this is a regrettable case and in addition to illustrating the light hand of police on the trigger toward citizens, particularly Arabs.”

Badarna said “this case also illustrates the culture of cover up, forging evidence and police coordinating their stories even at the highest levels.”

The police said in response: “Our position as presented as well in court, is that the fighter had to shoot his weapon as part of the chase after those suspected of theft, who had fled, were endangering other people’s lives, and who even attacked him. Mahash shut the case and the verdict in the case that took place at the start of the previous decade is being studied now and we are examining the possibility of appealing it to the district court.”

The police said further that “after the deceased was wounded by gunshot to the leg, he fled with the help of others, which delayed his receiving medical treatment. Had he been arrested right away and had people in the village not interfered with the force’s actions he would have received immediate medical care which may have saved his life.”

With regard to the conversation with Commander Levi, they said: “We stress that all that has to do with the officer’s conversation with his district commander at the time and not the investigation as said – this was a routine matter of personnel reporting to their commander on the details of an extraordinary event, based on the need to get a credible picture of what had happened and has nothing to do with the officer now having been out of service since 2014, he was expected like anyone in uniform to report the truth.”