Secret Shin Bet File on 2017 Cop Killing: Not Terrorism, but a Police Failure

Yakub Abu al-Kiyan was fatally shot a moment before his car ran over policeman Erez Levy in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran

Al-Kiyan's car being towed from the scene in Umm al-Hiran
Eliyahu Hershkowitz

The Shin Bet officer who investigated the events of January 2017 during attempts to demolish the unrecognized Negev Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran concluded that police had failed in their handling of that operation.

The officer ruled out the likelihood that Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, who was shot to death by police during the incident, had intentionally killed a police officer, Erez Levy, in a car-ramming terror attack. The officer based his report on evidence gathered in the aftermath of the incident and testimony from witnesses at the scene, which he presented to the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct. The classified document detailing the findings is likely to generate a storm of controversy in the police, the Justice Ministry and the Shin Bet in the coming days.

Video raises questions about alleged car-ramming attack by Bedouin

A few weeks ago, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan said he had been unable to determine whether the incident at Umm al-Hiran was a terror attack or not, because the evidence collected showed “indications of either one or the other.” Both the outgoing head of the Justice Ministry unit, Uri Carmel, and Nitzan’s deputy for criminal affairs, Shlomo Lemberger, opposed Nitzan’s conclusion.

The incident at Umm al-Hiran has raised some of the most potent and sensitive legal questions of recent years.

In the early hours of January 18, 2017, police arrived at Umm al-Hiran to assist in implementing a court order to evacuate and demolish illegal housing. Kiyan, a teacher, who lived at Umm al-Hiran, had just left his house and was driving 10 kilometers per hour. The police called on him to stop but Kiyan kept on driving at the same speed, even after one police officer struck his car with his rifle butt and then fired in the air and at the car’s tires. At this point, Kiyan was shot, causing the car to accelerate, run over and kill Erez Levy.

Kiyan died at the scene.

A few hours later Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich called Kiyan a “despicable terrorist” who had connections to ISIS.

Shin Bet officers who had arrived on the scene and took statements from those involved left a few hours later. Before leaving, one of them told the police that according to the Shin Bet’s analysis and the evidence collected, “there were no indications of a terror attack,” a security official told Haaretz.

The fact that the Shin Bet ended its investigation and the Justice Ministry unit that investigates the police was involved supports the Shin Bet’s conclusion that this was not a terror attack.

Over the months that followed, the Shin Bet took numerous statements, among them from the police and Kiyan’s family. The incident was reconstructed using a drone and involving an expert in car accidents and other experts in Israel and abroad. For example, a reconstruction showed beyond doubt that a car which went out of control precisely at the point where Kiyan’s car accelerated would have arrived at the exact spot where Levy was run over and killed. This and other evidence are what led the Shin Bet to conclude that a terror attack was extremely unlikely. In fact, as Haaretz learned from individuals involved in the negotiations over Umm al-Hiran’s fate in which Kiyan was involved, he was considered a pragmatist and a moderate.

When the Shin Bet concluded its investigation, the agency gave the material to State Prosecutor Nitzan. The consensus among leading officials in the Justice Ministry was that Kiyan had not carried out a terror attack and that the public should be informed of this.

Yakub Musa Abu al-Kiyan.
Courtesy

However, Police Commissioner Alsheich, who spoke to Nitzan on several occasions, continued to insist that Kiyan was a terrorist, and reportedly still believes so.

A few weeks ago, Nitzan decided to close the case without either rejecting or accepting the idea that the incident was a terror attack. During a lecture, Nitzan said he had decided not to rule either way because “there is no significant evidence that can decide unequivocally on the matter with a high degree of likelihood.”

Nevertheless, information that reached Haaretz about remarks Nitzan made to his Justice Ministry colleagues cast a shadow over Nitzan’s conclusion.

During internal discussions, Nitzan reportedly said that if the investigation against Kiyan on suspicion of terrorist activity had proceeded, he would have closed the case for lack of evidence of a crime. Nitzan has recently issued directives to prosecutors that expand the possibility of closing cases for this very reason.

Included in Nitzan’s published conclusions is the opinion he received from the Shin Bet’s legal department: that the Shin Bet had been unable to determine whether the incident was a terror attack. He also included Lemberger’s opinion and details from the investigation by the Shin Bet officer. A few powerful officials tried to get their hands on the document, including Alsheich.

In late 2017, with the investigation drawing to a close, Alsheich’s office came to the Shin Bet with a surprising demand: to be given the Shin Bet officer’s report of the events at Umm al-Hiran, which was a classified document.

An individual familiar with the matter said the Shin Bet found this demand “surprising” given that the police were being investigated by the Justice Ministry about the incident. Sources close to the police commissioner said that before a decision was made, the police only wanted to make sure that the document reached the Justice Ministry unit that investigates the police.

Alsheich was apparently certain the classified document contained information that would support his original, hasty conclusion, and crush the Shin Bet’s conclusion that no act of terror had taken place at Umm al-Hiran.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit then instructed the Shin Bet to give the document to the Justice Ministry unit. At that time, the journalist Guy Peleg of Israel Television News reported on the existence of the document, adding that Alsheich had said that the Justice Ministry unit had left “the sensitive and dramatic Shin Bet document” out of the file, and that concealing the file reached the level of “fabrication of evidence and obstruction of an investigation.”

However, the classified document in fact contained a narrative different than the one that Alsheich had apparently expected. The Shin Bet officer’s probe, which included the questioning of police officers present at the scene, stated that there was a low likelihood that Kiyan had committed a spontaneous terror attack. Rather, it appeared that one of the police officers had negligently opened fire directly at Kiyan instead of trying to stop the vehicle by another, less deadly means. According to the report, it was the shooting of Kiyan that led to the vehicle ramming into Officer Levy, and the tragedy at Umm al-Hiran was the result of a failure by the police. Moreover, the testimony the police officer who fired at Kiyan gave to the Shin Bet contradicted the testimony he gave to the Justice Ministry unit.

Israeli officer Erez Levy, 37, who was killed during clashes in Umm al-Hiran after allegedly being run over.

An individual familiar with the work of the Shin Bet told Haaretz that an examination of Kiyan’s computers and mobile phone revealed not even the slightest indication that he had planned an attack or was involved in terrorism.

A few weeks afterward, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (who also stated after the incident that it was a terror attack, based on information Alsheich gave him), told Nitzan that he had been informed that the Shin Bet was in possession of other classified material that raised the suspicion that Kiyan had committed a terror attack. The information in question was that Kiyan had driven over to survey the area before the incident, spotted the police, returned home and then came out again in his car. Examination of this claim by the Justice Ministry with the Shin Bet revealed no support for it.

In a lecture a few weeks ago, Nitzan rejected as “baseless” a claim by Haaretz that he had decided not to rule on whether the incident at Umm al-Hiran was a terror attack or not, among other reasons due to pressure by Alsheich. Nitzan also denied that in a conversation in the Justice Ministry he had said sarcastically that “there is a third family that must be taken into consideration – the Alsheich family.”

According to Nitzan, indications emerged from the evidence that Kiyan had sought to carry out a terror attack. Among these indications, say Nitzan and his associates, is the fact that three identical copies of the daily Israel Hayom were found in Kiyan’s car that reported on an ISIS terror attack, and that a book was found in Kiyan’s home with a section marked that deals with the fate of a person who dies while carrying out a religious commandment. Another indication of a car-ramming terror attack, according to Nitzan, is that Kiyan did not stop driving despite attempts by the police to make him do so, including striking the car with a rifle butt. However, Nitzan also noted that even when the police ordered him to stop, he did not speed up.

Nitzan also said that on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 standing for lack of any evidence of commission of a crime and 10 standing for solid evidence, he would have placed the possibility that Kiyan had committed a terror attack somewhere between 3 and 7.

For this report, the Shin Bet did not respond to specific queries it received from Haaretz. Rather, it responded laconically: “All the investigative material in the possession of the Shin Bet was given to the Justice Ministry unit. Since the investigation is being handled by the unit, we cannot discuss its details.”

Individuals close to Alsheich said that from the commissioner’s point of view, nothing but a terror attack can explain what happened. As for the question of how Alsheich knew of the existence of the Shin Bet officer’s classified document, the individuals said: “As in any investigation of a terror attack, the police work together with the Shin Bet and the request to the Shin Bet touched on the question of whether the Justice Ministry unit had asked the Shin Bet for all the material about the incident. It turned out that this had not been done until the police commissioner intervened.”

The Umm al-Hiran affair has created a major controversy within the Justice Ministry, the police and the Shin Bet, ending with a vague bottom line in an attempt to satisfy everyone. It seems Nitzan’s decision is not the final word on the matter.