Israeli Minister Calls to Reopen Investigation Into 2017 Police Killing of Bedouin Man

Comments by Amir Ohana come after report that then-state prosecutor Shai Nitzan prevented probe into conduct of police chief in case because of 'national interest'

Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
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Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 24, 2020.
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 24, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

The case of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, a Bedouin man who was fatally shot by police in 2017, should be reexamined, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana told Haaretz on Monday.

The comments followed a report on Israel’s Channel 12 News about an email sent by former state prosecutor Shai Nitzan, in which he acted to prevent an inquiry into the conduct of then-police commissioner Roni Alsheich in the case, despite a senior law enforcement official's claim that Alsheich leaked investigative materials to the press.

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Meretz Chairman MK Nitzan Horowitz also called for setting up a commission of inquiry into the killing of Abu al-Kiyan, as well as Eyad Hallaq, an autisic Palestinian man who was killed by a border police officer earlier this year.

Right-wing Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich apologized on Twitter for comments he previously made following the incident in which he referred to Abu al-Kiyan as a terrorist. "I was wrong and I was part of an injustice done to the Abu al-Kiyan family and when we wrong, we need to be corrected."

Credit: Forensic Architecture

On January 18, 2017, police officers shot at the car of Abu al-Kiyan, an assistant school principal, during the demolition of Umm al-Hiran, an unauthorized Bedouin village in the Negev. The vehicle then picked up speed, veered off course and struck policeman Erez Levy, who died at the scene.

Police portrayed the incident as a car-ramming attack, and never retracted their position that Abu al-Kiyan deliberately ran Levy over. But this runs counter to a number of other analyses, including by a security coordinator from Israel’s internal security service, known as Shin Bet, who was at the scene and blamed the event on a police operational failure.

The Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit also informally decided that the case was not a terrorist attack, but did not say so officially.

In 2018, the prosecutor’s office closed the case, arguing it was impossible to determine if Levy had been run over. At the time, Haaretz disclosed missteps on the part of the police in the case, including the fact that Abu al-Kiyan had been shot and injured, that police left him to die at the scene, as well as investigative material that led to a conclusion that it was not a terrorist attack.

In his correspondence with then police misconduct unit chief Uri Carmel, former state prosecutor Nitzan said he was inclined not to take action against Alsheich, who at the time headed the Israel Police, due to “national interest.”

The car of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, who was shot and killed by Israel Police during the demolition of the village of Umm al-Hiran, January 19, 2017.
The car of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, who was shot and killed by Israel Police during the demolition of the village of Umm al-Hiran, January 19, 2017.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

According to the Channel 12 report, Carmel was furious after details of the case were leaked to the media, which he attributed to the police. Further up his part, Alsheich was angry that the Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit had informally decided that Abu al-Kiyan was not a terrorist and had not deliberately run over Erez Levy, Channel 12 said.

Nitzan wrote that he considered Alsheich’s conduct “intolerable,” adding that he had “acted in a scandalous manner.” But Nitzan also said he was wavering on how to deal with the issue. “It would be hard for me to take the route that the police chief took and act as he did,” Nitzan wrote, adding that in light of the bigger picture and overall relations between the police and the prosecutor’s office, “escalating the feud now will only benefit someone who wishes ill to the law enforcement system, as a word to the wise.”

Horowitz said, demanding a reexamination of the case, "when Abu al-Kiyan was killed, we protested and demanded for years to investigate the false plot fabricated by the police. This latest exposure proves that no real attempt has ever been made to get to the truth." He added "If justice is really important to anyone who woke up this morning and found out that an innocent citizen had been wronged, here is your chance to atone for the injustice: Join us now to stop the cover-up of the killings of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan and Eyad Hallaq and provide compensation to their families."

Ohana’s call for a reexamination of the case is the first time a government official has made such a request in the case, despite a petition filed by Abu al-Kiyan’s family with the High Court of Justice to investigate the officers involved in early 2020. His predecessor, Gilad Erdan, had consistently backed the police stance that Abu al-Kiyan was a terrorist.

Over the years, Erdan characterized the incident in a variety of ways, including some details that later turned out to be inaccurate. At first, he gave his full backing to the police. About a year later, he said he had no information that would undermine the finding that Abu al-Kiyan deliberately carried out an attack that killed Levy and that at that stage, there was nothing to apologize for.

Three months later, he qualified his comments somewhat, writing: “It’s my feeling that there is a higher probability that this was a ramming attack.” To this day, police officer Erez Levy is commemorated on a website maintained by the Prime Minister’s Office as having been killed in a terrorist attack.

The minister’s comments come amid a chorus of condemnations of Israel’s law enforcement agencies by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates. Shai Nitzan, who left his post in December 2019, has regularly come under fire for his central role in Netanyahu’s current trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

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