Israel Police Sat on Appeal of Bedouin Asking to Reopen Investigation Into Son's Death for Over a Year

Mazen Abu-Habak, 18, was shot to death in February 2016 and police closed the investigation in 2017. Police sat on his father's appeal for over a year due to 'human error'

Suleiman abu Habak, father of Mazen abu Habak, and the younger brother of the Bedouin teenager, who died of a gunshot to the back
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

For over a year, Israeli police did not forward to the State Prosecutor’s Office the appeal of a Bedouin man who requested to reopen the investigation into his son’s death. The Justice Ministry’s unit that investigates police misconduct closed the investigation into the 18-year-old’s death but mishandled the case due to “human error,” police said.

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Mazen Abu-Habak, 18, was shot to death in February 2016. The investigations unit closed the investigation in April 2017 and two months later attorney Hussein Abu Hussein filed an appeal on the decision. At the beginning of October, about 16 months after he filed the appeal, Abu Hussein contacted the State Prosecutor’s Office to find out what progress had been made but was told that the investigations unit had not yet forwarded the case to them. When he subsequently checked with the unit, he learned the case had never been sent. Appeals of the investigations unit’s decisions are generally discussed by high-ranking officials in the State Prosecutor’s Office, and often the decision is made by the state prosecutor himself.

Abu Hussein then sent a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, State Prosecutor Shay Nitzan and the head of the investigation’s unit, Keren Bar-Menachem, saying: “I wish to express my displeasure at the manner in which this has been handled, which shows a total lack of respect for human life and bolsters the feeling that many citizens, especially Arab citizens, have that the investigations unit... whitewashes investigations against police officers, particularly when the victims are Arabs.”

The Justice Ministry’s investigation unit said in response, “Due to human error in the administrative stage, the appeal was not handled close to the time that it was filed. Once this was discovered, the appeal was forwarded for further handling in a timely and thorough manner.”

The night of the incident, on February 2, 2016, Border Police patrol officers and volunteers spotted a jeep that aroused their suspicion next to Moshav Eshbol in the northern Negev and signaled to it to stop. The driver did not comply and tried to flee. The officers pursued the jeep for several kilometers. According to the police, the jeep collided with a patrol car as it fled. The officers fired at the jeep, which got away. A few hours later, the burnt jeep was found near the Nokdim junction south of Be’er Sheva.

Shortly after that, Abu-Habak was brought into an emergency clinic in Rahat with gunshot wounds. It was suspected that he was shot during the police chase, and the police investigation unit’s officers arrived at the scene and began investigating. A Border Police volunteer admitted that he opened fire during the chase. Abu-Habak died four days later and the volunteer became the main suspect in causing his death by negligence. Contrary to normal practice in such cases, the police did not report the incident to the press, Israel’s rescue services did not report the transport of the person with gunshot wounds and Soroka Hospital did not report his admission. The incident was first reported in Haaretz eight months after it occurred.

The Justice Ministry’s investigation unit closed the case against the Border Police volunteer about 14 months after the incident. The investigation unit said the volunteer was first questioned under caution in February 2017, a year after the incident and that the investigation did not yield sufficient evidence to file an indictment. Since the vehicle burned, evidence was destroyed. In addition, the bullet that hit Abu-Habak shattered in a way that made it difficult to do forensic testing that would connect the bullet to the volunteer’s weapon.

The Abu-Habak case was not the first case in which a Bedouin was killed and in which the police investigation unit’s handling of it caused a significant delay in proceedings. In January 2015, Sami al-Ja’ar was shot by police in Rahat and the investigation unit decided to close the case in February 2016. This decision was accompanied by a brief letter in which the investigation’s unit failed to note that it also instructed the police to start a disciplinary proceeding against an officer who lied during questioning. Eight months later, the state prosecutor’s representative told the High Court about the decision on the disciplinary proceeding and also said that due to a “technical error,” the material from the investigation was not forwarded to the police and the disciplinary proceeding had yet to begin.