Bedouin Was Driving Slowly When Cops Killed Him as ‘Car-rammer,’ but Police Closed the Case

Even though the department was unanimous in reaching this conclusion, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan decided to close the case

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

Last year’s incident in Umm al-Hiran, in which a Bedouin resident of the village ran over and killed a policeman during a stormy demonstration, was not a terror attack; in fact, the car was going at a speed of only about 10 kilometers per hour when policemen first opened fire at it, according to the Justice Ministry department which investigates police misconduct.

Yet even though the department – including its outgoing head, Uri Carmel – was unanimous in reaching this conclusion, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan decided to close the case without determining whether or not policeman Erez Levy was run over intentionally. Nitzan made this decision after speaking with Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, who pressed him to refrain from declaring that this wasn’t a terror attack.

The incident took place before dawn on January 18, 2017, when policemen had come to evict the residents of illegally built houses in Umm al-Hiran prior to demolishing them.

The department’s investigation found that when police first opened fire at Yakub Abu al-Kiyan’s car on that day, he was driving at a speed of only about 10 kilometers per hour. The investigators’ conclusion was that after the policemen shot at the car several times, bursting its tires, Abu al-Kiyan lost control of the vehicle and ran into Levy. Police then shot and killed him.

The department wanted to question at least one of the policemen who shot Abu al-Kiyan under caution, meaning as a suspect in a crime. But Nitzan refused to permit it.

The investigators also concluded that Abu al-Kiyan didn’t receive medical treatment after he was shot, and consequently bled to death. Police said they originally thought he was dead, then thought they should wait for a police sapper in case he was wired with explosives. But even after the sapper cleared Abu al-Kiyan, none of the medical personnel present treated him.

Investigators also wanted to question some of the policemen involved in denying him treatment under caution, but again, didn’t receive permission to do so. Nitzan’s decision to close the case leaves the question of Abu al-Kiyan’s treatment unresolved.

The Shin Bet security service, which examined the scene of the incident immediately after it occurred, said the likelihood that Abu al-Kiyan had planned to run over Levy was low. Later, in the official opinion it gave the prosecution, it said it was impossible to state with certainty what the circumstances of the incident were.

But after the Justice Ministry department finished its own comprehensive investigation, it concluded that Abu al-Kiyan hadn’t intended to run over Levy. Carmel, the department head, said the idea that this was a terror attack was unreasonable, and his opinion was backed by the deputy attorney general for criminal affairs, Shlomo Lemberger.

Then, however, Alsheich contacted Nitzan. Alsheich had asserted immediately after the incident that Abu al-Kiyan deliberately tried to kill Levy, even calling him an “evil terrorist.”

And in the end, Nitzan decided to close the case without deciding whether or not Levy’s death was deliberate. The Justice Ministry’s announcement of its decision to close the case made no mention of department investigators’ conclusions.

Some law enforcement officials raised doubts about the policemen’s testimony, saying they had tried to portray events in a way that would justify their shooting.

All of the policemen said that two of them had tried to signal Abu al-Kiyan to stop before anyone opened fire, including by shouting and waving a flashlight. Nevertheless, the car kept moving, eventually forcing them to jump out of the road.

Consequently, two other policemen shot at its wheels, thinking that their own and their comrades’ lives were in danger. But still, the car still kept going and even sped up. By the time it hit two policemen, killing one and wounding another, it was going at a speed of 50 kilometers per hour.

Only after the two policemen had been hit did one policeman shoot directly at Abu al-Kiyan, seriously wounding him.

But investigators questioned the need to open fire at all at a car that was originally going only 10 kilometers per hour. They also found contradictions between the various policemen’s testimony, and wondered why no one had shot at Abu al-Kiyan himself if the policemen really felt their lives were in danger when they first shot at the car.

One law enforcement source said investigators had been unable to either confirm or deny a theory that Abu al-Kiyan stepped on the gas pedal accidentally after being shot in the knee. Another theory is that he simply got frightened when the policemen shot at his tires and sped up in an effort to escape.

Contrary to initial claims by Alsheich and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, no evidence was found linking Abu al-Kiyan to the Islamic State. Investigators also found that he had packed up all his belongings in preparation for complying with the eviction order from his home, which isn’t the behavior one would expect of someone planning a fatal terror attack.

The prosecution declined to comment on either the evidence gathered in the probe or the investigators’ opinion. But it reiterated that it found no reason to suspect the policemen of having committed any crime, since even if this weren’t a deliberate terror attack – something it was unable to reach any definite conclusion on – the circumstances of the incident had led the policemen to believe that their lives were in danger.

However, it added, it had referred some issues to the police for possible disciplinary action.

Attorneys for the policemen involved said they had acted legally, as evidenced by the decision not to open criminal investigations against them.

The police referred all questions about the investigation to the Justice Ministry department which carried it out, but welcomed the final decision that the policemen had acted legally and weren’t suspected of any crime.

All the initial evidence from the scene led police to believe the incident was a deliberate terror attack, the police statement added, “and even after the state prosecution examined all the evidentiary material, it didn’t determine that this wasn’t an attack.”