New Footage Sheds Light on Fraught, Fatal 2017 Episode in Bedouin Village

U.K. forensic organization releases video of incident in which a local resident and a police officer were killed and an Arab lawmaker wounded, during the evacuation of Umm al-Hiran

Israeli Police enter the Negev Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in order to evacuate and demolish it, January 18, 2017.
Keren Manor / Activestills

The final chapter of an investigation into an incident in a Negev Bedouin village in 2017, in which two people were killed, was publicized Monday by British forensic experts. The two victims killed during the Israeli security forces' evacuation of Umm al-Hiran, in advance of its planned demolition, were a local teacher, Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, and police officer Erez Levy.

Compiled by the U.K.-based Forensic Architecture research organization, the report features images from body cameras worn by Israel Police officers at the scene on January 18, 2017, immediately after Abu al-Kiyan – who was shot while driving and then lost control of his vehicle – ran over Levy and killed him.

Original assessments by politicians and other officials were that this was a deliberate, car-ramming attack.

The new investigation, headed by Prof. Eyal Weizman of Goldsmiths, University of London, was also based on footage from the cameras of journalists (including documentary photography collective Activestills), local residents and left-wing activists who were present during the evacuation – and from a police helicopter. These materials, backed by digital analyses by Forensic Architecture, support the theory of the Justice Ministry's department for investigation of the police, as well as of the Shin Bet security service, that Abu al-Kiyan was not trying to run over Levy as a terrorist act.

Forensic Architecture

The images also confirm the version of events provided by Knesset member Ayman Odeh, then-chairman of the Joint List party, who was also in Umm al-Hiran that day and claims he was hit in the head then by a sponge-tipped bullet.

The newly released footage from policemen’s body cameras shows Abu al-Kiyan losing control of his vehicle after he was shot. The vehicle proceeds on its way at high speed and shots can be heard in the background. After a few seconds the vehicle stops and its horn starts honking. A policeman can be seen opening the door and removing Abu al-Kiyan.

The Forensic Architecture report rules out the possibility that Abu al-Kiyan was shot by a police officer at close range, calling it “unreasonable,” and reveals new information about developments near the scene, including the incident with Odeh. The police have denied that sponge-tipped bullets were fired at him and said demonstrators had been throwing rocks, one of which hit the MK.

The authors of the report say the police investigation department of the Justice Ministry failed to give Odeh’s lawyers three videos taken by the police at Umm al-Hiran, which could have shed light on the incident; the written transcript of testimonies by policemen lacked statements relating to the incident as well, they note. One video clip from the police was broadcast on Israel's Channel 10 television last year, but it was edited, omitting the seconds when Odeh was apparently injured.

Forensic Architecture’s digital model allowed the agency to "match" the position of figures seen
in multiple video sources on January 18, 2017 at the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, including footage captured by activists on the ground, and thermal video footage captured by a police helicopter.
Forensic Architecture

The clash between security forces and Odeh and left-wing activists occurred seconds after Abu al-Kiyan was shot and Levy was run over, as the activists tried to approach the site.

The new investigatory materials (and others) were collected by Forensic Architecture in collaboration with the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, which is providing legal representation to Odeh. After the case was closed against the policemen involved in the incident involving him, the MK's lawyers submitted an appeal in March. Now, with publication of the new information, it is likely that the investigation of Odeh’s injury will be reopened.

As to the circumstances surrounding Abu al-Kiyan's death, the Justice Ministry department had recommended that one of the policemen who fired his weapon be questioned under caution, based on information from the Shin Bet. However, the prosecution closed the case and never questioned anybody about firing the lethal shot.

Eyal Weizman, a professor of spatial and visual cultures at Goldsmiths, says Forensic Architecture's analysis categorically shows that Abu al-Kiyan was in no way motivated by terrorist intentions when he ran over Levy; he had lost control of his vehicle after being shot, whereupon he bled to death because the security forces did not attend to him.

“That is why the incident with Odeh is so important, as he and other activists were right there and tried to get to him [Abu al-Kiyan] to help him, which could have saved his life,” says Weizman, adding that he and his co-researchers found an abundance of photographic and other evidence of the evacuation of Umm al-Hiran on that fateful day.

“It is unusual to get footage from so many angles regarding a single incident,” he says. “If the Justice Ministry's department had related to the evidence like we do, they would have clearly seen that the police were responsible for the deaths of Abu al-Kiyan and Erez Levy, and for Odeh’s serious injuries. What we see is a persistent effort to manipulate the evidence, including the failure to provide evidence. The policeman who shot live bullets at Abu-Kiyan and the one who shot at Odeh should be put on trial.”

Israeli policemen stand guard next to a vehicle that rammed into a group of policemen, killing one, in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev in southern Israel, Jan. 18, 2017.
Tsafrir Abayov / AP

For its part, after receiving the new information, the department for investigation of the police at the Justice Ministry commented that the plaintiffs had not made additional requests or reported anything missing from the testimony originally submitted in the case.

“In the appeal, the claim was raised for the first time that video footage was missing," according to the department's statement. "To the best of our knowledge, the material was transferred in full. If, however, material is missing, those making the appeal should submit it."

Forensics Architecture will be displaying some of the images from its investigation of the Umm al-Hiran incident at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, as part of its 2019 biennial, through September.