Contradicting Police Chief, Shin Bet Found No Evidence of Terrorism Before 2017 Killing of Bedouin Teacher

Internal document obtained by Haaretz indicates that the security service never suspected Yakub Abu al-Kiyan of trying to run over police officers, who shot him to death in 2017

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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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.
Israel Police officers next to the vehicle driven by Yakub Abu al-Kiyan in Umm al-Hiran on January 18, 2017. Credit: Tsafrir Abayov / AP
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

A senior Shin Bet official told the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct in November 2017 that there was no reason to believe that Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, a Bedouin man, was trying to carry out a terror attack against police officers, who shot him to death in the village of Umm al-Hiran the previous January.

“Beyond the materials provided to you so far, we have no evidence, reasonable explanation or information indicating that Yakub Abu al-Kiyan either planned a terror attack or prepared for such an attack after conducting an inquiry in the southern district,” the document summarizing the Shin Bet’s investigation into the deaths of Abu al-Kiyan and police officer Erez Levy states. “All intelligence regarding the circumstances of the incident itself and Abu al-Kiyan have been provided to you, and we have no further materials.”

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The document, released now for the first time, adds to the Shin Bet’s firm position taken within two days of the incident that there was no evidence or indication of a terror attack. The document was sent to the police’s internal investigations unit in the wake of claims by then-Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich that Abu al-Kiyan had deliberately tried to run over police officers and that the Shin Bet was withholding a document indicating as such.

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.

Alsheich immediately referred to the incident as a terror attack, a position he still holds. Shin Bet investigators arrived at the scene shortly thereafter to question the officers involved, among them S., who first shot at Abu al-Kiyan. They also searched Abu al-Kiyan’s home, including computers inside, and questioned his relatives.

“We have nothing to indicate a terror attack,” the Shin Bet informed the investigations unit less than 48 hours later, contradicting Alsheich’s declarations. Alsheich then put pressure on the department not to advance the investigation, senior officials assert. In October 2017, the police commissioner’s office requested that the Shin Bet director’s office provide more investigative material, even though neither he nor other police officials should have been getting involved in an ongoing investigation.

Credit: Forensic Architecture

Alsheich’s request surprised Shin Bet officials, who informed the police misconduct unit about it. Unit officials responded that no documents should be provided to the commissioner. A month later, Channel 12 reported that the Shin Bet had provided the investigation unit with a document they had collected at the scene of the killing, which required opening an investigation. The report quoted Alsheich as saying, “The police investigation unit withheld from the investigative file a sensitive and dramatic Shin Bet document, and that matter rises to the level of fabrication of evidence and obstruction of justice.”

However, two senior officials say that the document the Shin Bet provided not only failed to back Alsheich’s claim of a terror attack but rather reinforced the position that there was no evidence or indication of a terror attack. Otherwise, they say, the Shin Bet would have investigated the incident. The unit made another request to the Shin Bet, which handed over the document a few days later.

“Someone tricked Alsheich to humiliate him,” a senior law enforcement official told Haaretz. The only evidence in Umm al-Hiran tying Abu al-Kiyan to terrorism was a series of passages marked in his Quran found in his home, next to which was written, “Learn by heart.” Some officials familiar with the case’s details say the passages have to do with a person’s day of death. However, Shin Bet and police officials say the passages are standard for a devout Muslim.

One of the main pieces of evidence that convinced the Shin Bet that no terrorism was involved was that Abu al-Kiyan had planned in his Waze app a trip the next morning to a college. The search turned up no connections to terrorist groups or indications of a planned terror attack. His relatives also told the Shin Bet that he had berated them for being too religious. His son stated that his father had told him a few months before his death, “Shave your beard so they won’t think we are from ISIS.” Shin Bet officials said Alsheich’s lobbying “crossed a line.”

Al-Kiyan's car being towed from the scene in Umm al-Hiran
Yakub Abu al-Kiyan's car being towed from the scene in Umm al-Hiran, January 18, 2017.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

Former senior law enforcement officials say that in Alsheich’s defense, the pressure on the unit was meant to bring the investigation to a swift conclusion because of its public profile. “The request was made so material would be provided to the police investigations unit,” one of the former officials said. They claim the unit’s officials turned to the Shin Bet only in the later stages of the investigation.

The head of the unit at the time, Uri Carmel, insisted on opening a criminal probe against the officer who first fired at Abu al-Kiyan, while he was travelling at just 10 kilometers per hour. The officer also told the Shin Bet official leading the investigation immediately after the killing that he hadn’t felt his life was in danger. The unit wavered whether to charge him with negligent manslaughter – because there was no cause for shooting at the car, which was followed by dozens of other shots by other officers – or for negligent use of a firearm.

However, then state prosecutor Shai Nitzan didn’t accept their position because of intense lobbying by Alsheich, according to the head of the police investigations unit. Nitzan also decided not to rule the incident a non-terror event, despite the clear position of the Shin Bet and the police investigations unit. The matter was the center of a bitter dispute between Alsheich and Carmel, with Nitzan quietly backing the police.

Carmel responded to reports accusing investigators of withholding documents in November 2017 with a sharp letter to Nitzan. “I feel that in the police investigations unit is being sacrificed on the altar of state prosecutor-police relations over the public interest to which it is beholden,” he wrote. “Failing to back me when the police commissioner himself (not just some indicted person, delusional legislator or radical human rights organization), that when we have evidence in our hands, it seems to me unfair and unethical.”

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