Israeli Public Security Minister Backtracks on Whether Cop's Killing by Bedouin Was Terror

Yakub Abu al-Kiyan was shot dead by the police in January at a protest during which his car plowed into police officer Erez Levi.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan
Emil Salman

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan began backtracking on his claim that a Bedouin who ran over a policeman during a protest in January was a “terrorist” who plowed his car into the policeman intentionally.

Both the policeman, Erez Levi, and the driver, Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, died; the latter was killed by police gunfire.

The incident took place during a Bedouin demonstration against the demolition of the unrecognized Negev village of Umm al-Hiran. Though Erdan initially termed Abu al-Kiyan a terrorist, subsequent evidence, including both eyewitness testimony and footage shot by the police themselves, indicates that he may have lost control of his car after being wounded by police fire. On Tuesday, Erdan changed his tune.

“A difficult and regrettable incident took place in Umm al-Hiran a few weeks ago. We mustn’t let anyone try to take this particular incident in which unfortunately both a policeman and a civilian were killed and draw inferences from it regarding the totality of the relationship between the Bedouin population and the police,” Erdan told a police gathering.

“We must learn the lessons, once it becomes clear what exactly happened there,” he added, noting that a probe by the Justice Ministry department that investigates police malfeasance is still ongoing. “Then we must go forward, strengthen this relationship, and bolster police services and enforcement against lawbreakers who first and foremost hurt our beloved Bedouin community, with which we want to continue living in coexistence in the Negev.”

A month ago, Erdan had claimed that “the picture arising from the police probe was very clear: This was an attack, a deliberate car-ramming.” As evidence, he cited newspapers found in Abu al-Kiyan’s house with headlines about car-ramming attacks and the Islamic State.

“They weren’t found as part of a pile of newspapers; [it was] a collection of headlines about car-ramming attacks,” Erdan said the day after the attack. “And it wasn’t just in his house; there’s another place that hasn’t yet been published where material was found that attests to him studying or gathering material about this matter.”

All this, combined with material from the Shin Bet security service and the circumstances of the incident, “indicates that this was an attack,” he added.

In an interview with Radio Darom that same day, Erdan acknowledged the possibility that the police might have acted improperly, but appeared to dismiss it as unlikely. “After the investigation concludes, if it turns out the police were wrong, I too will demand explanations from them,” he said. “But to present this as if it were one person’s story versus another when a policeman has been murdered in an attack I think that’s wrong and inappropriate.”

Footage filmed by Al Jazeera and published earlier this month showed that Abu al-Kiyan’s car had its lights on, contrary to the claims by Erdan and the police, both of whom said the fact that he hadn’t turned his lights on bolstered their assertion that this was a deliberate attack. The incident occurred at 5:57 A.M., when it was still dark, so an ordinary driver would have had his lights on.

The police’s claim was based on footage taken from a thermal imaging camera, but it’s not possible to tell from that footage whether the car’s lights were on.

The Al Jazeera footage was analyzed by activists from two organizations that have been investigating the

incident, ActiveStills and Forensic Architecture. It shows Abu al-Kiyan’s car with its lights on shortly before it accelerated toward the police. At the same moment, shots are heard and policemen shout “gunfire,” and the car accelerates.

The activists confirmed that the car pictured was really Abu al-Kiyan’s by comparing the footage to both the police footage and additional footage shot by an ActiveStills member.