Three years after the police killing of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau publicly apologized on Tuesday to his family, a day after Israel’s Channel 12 News published correspondences by senior law enforcement officials allegedly revealing misconduct in the shooting.
"They said he was a terrorist. Yesterday we found out he was not a terrorist," said Netanyahu, claiming that senior law enforcement officials "turned him into a terrorist to protect themselves and hurt me."
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After the 2017 shooting, Netanyahu himself called it a "terror attack."
Netanyahu's statement comes amid a chorus of condemnations of Israel’s law enforcement agencies by the prime minister 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.
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.
Up until Netanyahu's remarks on Tuesday, the police haven't retracted their characterization of Abu al-Kiyan as a terrorist and were backed up by Gilan Erdan, who was public security minister until May of this year.
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But in a Tuesday statement, the police offered their condolences to the Abu al-Kiyan family for the first time.
Ayman Odeh, chairman of the four-way alliance of Arab-majority parties, said: “The Abu al-Kiyan family tragedy is no more than a media spin [Netanyahu] uses for his personal benefit. Any real investigation will find him and Minister Erdan responsible for covering up Yakub Abu al-Kiyan’s murder.”
The deceased’s nephew, Ra’ad Abu al-Kiyan said in response to Netanyahu’s remarks: “Slandering his and our name was based on… political and personal interests. That’s what we’ve been saying all along, and that has been the truth. We knew it and the whole world knew it.”
Abu al-Kiyan's family said on Tuesday that they were determined to clear his name of allegations that he was a terrorist. In a statement, they said: "All of us know who Yakub was: a leader, an educator, a beloved dad and brother. He was killed in cold blood and the family is continuing its legal battle against the state prosecutor, the police who fired the shots, the negligent medic, and the [failure to provide] medical assistance.”
Joint List lawmaker Aida Touma-Sliman said in a tweet Netanyahu’s “apology is worth nothing, and in nothing more than cynical use of blood for ominous political purposes… If Netanyahu truly wants to apologize, he only has one way to do it – resign.”
Ahmad Tibi, also of the Joint List, called Netanyahu’s remarks “manipulative,” adding that they represent “irreparable narcissism.” The prime minister, Tibi said, “relates everything to the investigation against him.”
The Mossawa Center, an Arab advocacy group, said in a statement: “Netanyahu and his government are partners in crime… It’s a shame that people are being murdered by police and the entire system lies to the public and to the family.”
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana told Haaretz on Monday that the case of Abu al-Kiyan should be reexamined. Meretz Chairman MK Nitzan Horowitz also called for setting up a commission of inquiry into the killing. Additionally, 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.
The 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.
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 “interests of the state that need to be taken into consideration.”