A senior IDF commander who served in occupied territory during the intifadas would often tell of how he made sure to show up within two to three hours at any site where a Palestinian man or woman had been killed under questionable circumstances.
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If he tarried, he explained, he knew he was leaving too much time for troops to coordinate testimonies, make incriminating evidence disappear and cover up either for a commander or a subordinate.
Without getting an immediate impression of what had occurred at the scene, a credible investigation becomes almost impossible, he said.
The official version of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and the police brass regarding the incident at Umm al-Hiran raised suspicions in a matter of hours after it took place.
Anyone who follows what goes on in the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev or has any experience with similar incidents in the territories had red lights flashing inside their heads almost immediately, one after the other.
It wasn’t just the police version of the sequence of events that was suspicious. It was the decisiveness of the statements made by the minister and the police commissioner, the fervor with which Erdan argued with the Arab MKs, the somewhat childish tone of the police statements and, in particular, the clumsy attempt to link the Bedouin man who was killed, Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, to Islamic State-related activity.
Despite all the claims of discrimination raised by the Bedouin, the position of the dead man’s family as it tried to prove that there was no terror attack was far better than that of a Palestinian family under similar circumstances.
The incident at Umm al-Hiran took place in the midst of a confrontation involving many people, including Jewish demonstrators and lawmakers from the Joint Arab List. The incident was filmed from several angles.
It generated enough public interest and skepticism that even those media outlets that at first automatically assumed that the police-Erdan version was reliable were later prepared to listen to the family’s opposing claims and give them air time and microphones.
By coincidence, the interim conclusions of the department for the investigation of police officers in the al-Kiyan case were revealed at the same time as soldier Elor Azaria was sentenced for shooting to death an immobilized terrorist in Hebron last year.
Like the ramming and shooting incident in the Negev, Azaria’s act was also caught on video. The shooting of the wounded terrorist as he lay on the ground was an exceptional act that violates the rules of engagement in the territories.
But there’s no doubt that if it hadn’t been videotaped in detail, the defense establishment’s response to Azaria would have been less immediate and decisive.
One can assume that there are plenty of “gray” incidents in which soldiers and even officers use bad judgment and shoot at terrorists after they’ve been “neutralized,” as the army puts it, or at a Palestinian civilian who didn’t really pose a threat.
In such cases, if enough time passes before a senior commander reaches the scene – since a Military Police investigation will always take a few hours to be launched – there’s a greater chance of covering up what really happened.
This, by the way, is exactly why Israel needs the testimonies of soldiers, even when they come from left-wing or human rights groups like B’tselem or Breaking the Silence.
Not everything these groups say is accurate; a soldier can get a mistaken impression based on what he saw without being familiar with the whole picture his commanders see. And of course, there are unreliable Palestinian testimonies, as well.
But what is true in Umm Al-Hiran is also true in Hebron or Nablus. At the patrol, platoon, or company level, combat soldiers and their commanders sometimes have an interest in covering up mistakes and foul-ups and in shielding from prosecution comrades who may have acted against orders.
Under these circumstances, and given the inherent weakness (in status, knowledge and experience) of Military Police investigations compared even to the Israel Police and the department for the investigation of police officers, the evidence collected by groups in the territories can fill in substantial gaps.
The Umm al-Hiran case, whose details turned out this week to be congruent with early coverage by Haaretz, illustrates all the potential evils inherent in a violent encounter between the police and Israel’s Arab citizens.
The incident in the Negev would have integrated well into the Or Commission report on the events of October 2000 in the Arab sector, in which policemen shot and killed 13 Arab civilians.
Here too, it seems as if there were lies from below, cover-up attempts from above and self-righteousness on the part of the leadership, aided by a tailwind of public opinion.
A substantial portion of the public nowadays is prepared to equate a Bedouin battling to save his home with a terrorist and even an Islamic State operative, and accepts any incriminating version of events that the authorities put out, even without proof.
This case, just the tip of the iceberg of what often happens in the territories, also illustrates the unbearable ease with which spokespeople mislead the public, whether because people in the field lied to the police spokespeople or the spokespeople were too quick to accept what they were told.