Israeli-Arab Lawmaker Appeals Closure of Case Against Cops Suspected of Shooting Him

Appeal charges police were 'trigger-happy' the day of the incident in which Ayman Odeh claimed he was hit in the head and injured by a sponge-tipped bullet

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

Arab-Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh appealed on Tuesday the decision to close the case into the suspected assault against him by police officers during a protest against the planned eviction of the Bedouin community of Umm al-Hiran in January 2017.  

The Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct closed the case, with the approval of State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, in September.

>> Read more: Despicable Terrorist? Bedouin Village in Israel's South Mourns a Beloved Teacher ■ What Israel's state prosecutor ignored at Umm al-Hiran | Editorial 

The confrontation between the policemen and Odeh occurred at Umm al-Hiran, following an 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, which 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, requiring hospital treatment.

A law enforcement source told Haaretz in July 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 another five months. The Justice Ministry 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.

FILE PHOTO: MK Ayman Odeh, chair of Hadash-Ta'al party, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 8, 2015.
REUTERS/Baz Ratner

The case alleging that the Odeh, chairman of the Hadash party, was pepper sprayed by police was closed over “lack of guilt,” meaning investigators concluded no crime was committed, and the case in which Odeh claimed he was hit in the head and injured by a sponge-tipped bullet was closed for lack of evidence.

While Odeh claimed his head injury came from a sponge-tipped bullet fired by police, the police claimed he was hit in the head by a rock thrown by protesters at police that hit Odeh instead.

Abu al-Kiyan was shot to death by policemen who claimed that he deliberately ran over and killed their colleague Levi. While his family and other activists present at the site denied this claim, police originally said this was a "terrorist attack." The police later reversed that statement, declaring there was no way to show whether Kiyan, a schoolteacher, lost control of his car or was acting with the intent to kill.

Over 20 police officers were questioned in the case. A number of them, including an officer with the rank of superintendent, were suspected of obstructing the investigation after they provided other police officers with information on the case before they were questioned. These matters were referred to the police’s internal disciplinary department.

The policeman suspected of shooting Odeh with a sponge-tipped bullet told his interrogators that he had fired four of the bullets, but none toward the lawmaker.

The identity of the shooter could have been deduced if the unit had asked the policemen relevant questions, the appeal says, adding: "Alternatively, the investigative materials indicate a single specific shooter, G., who fired toward a crowd. There is no choice but to determine that G. was the specific shooter and therefore, should be put on trial."

A child in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, April 11, 2018.
\ Ilan Assayag

According to the investigative materials, G. used sponge-tipped bullets during the incident but didn't report it, the appeal says.

Upon questioning, G. admitted to having fired toward "the person leading the people." Odeh's lawyers, Public Committee Against Torture in Israel attorneys Noa Levy, Shlomi Zecharia and Michal Ziv, argue that firing sponge-tipped bullets into a crowd is prohibited by law. G. said the situation was "messy" and that people shouldn't have come into the "sterile area," claiming they fired to deter the crowd.

Yet the investigative unit said it could not ascertain that G. had been the one who fired the sponge-tipped bullet that hit Odeh. The appeal charges that the testimonies are indicative of a "trigger-happy environment" among the police officers the day of the incident, "according to which the mere presence of activists at the place allowed them to fire toward them."

After the appeal was submitted, Odeh said closing the case shows "whitewashing" by the unit. "Policeman used violence against a Knesset member and were not put on trial," he stated. "Time and again the unit ignored the evidence presented in their investigation. They dragged the case out for over a year and ultimately decided to close it for political reasons."

Levy said that the unit had hastened to decide that it didn't have evidence, "in a clear case of obstructing justice."

Dov Gilad Cohen, the lawyer representing the policemen involved in the incident, said the evidence shows sponge-tipped bullets hadn't been used by Odeh, but rather used only "at other times and in other places."