A policeman and Bedouin Israeli were killed Wednesday morning during clashes in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, sparked by the demolition of homes in the Negev village.
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According to police, the civilian who was killed, Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, was a terrorist who deliberately ran over and killed a policeman, 37-year-old Erez Levi, and injured another.
However, eye witnesses say the driver was first shot by police, causing him to lose control of his vehicle, which then ran over the two policemen. A video — shot by a police helicopter at the scene and released after the incident — raises questions about the police version, and strengthens the version of the eye witnesses.
Following the release of the video, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan tweeted that the police gunfire seen at the beginning of the video are warning shots which were not directed at the driver.
The clashes erupted after police officers arrived to demolish illegally built structures in the Bedouin village early Wednesday morning, to make way for a Jewish town slated to be built nearby.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the incident: "Not only does such an event not deter us, it strengthens us, strengthens our resolve. The State of Israel is first and foremost a country ruled by law, it will have equal enforcement."
In a statement by the Prime Minister's Bureau said Netanyahu attended a briefing with Erdan and Police chief Roni Alsheich following the events in Umm al-Hiran. The statement said that Netanyahu sends his condolences to the family of the officer killed in the incident. "This is the second ramming attack in a few days. We are fighting these murderous incidents hitting both Israel and the world," the statement said.
Israeli Arab lawmaker Joint List Ayman Odeh and a second person were also injured during the confrontation and were evacuated to Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva.
Police sources say they are looking into potential ties between al-Kiyan and ISIS, and they say that after raiding his house they found Israeli newspapers with headlines about the group, though his family denies any such relationship, saying he is just a math teacher at the local high school in the Bedouin town of Hura.
Social activist Michal Ramati, who was at the scene during the incident, said she had seen "a white car moving away from the scene, all the while there were lots of gun shots. Then the car seemed to lose control and roll down the hill, hitting officers who were making their way up the hill, eventually crashing into another car."
Another eyewitness said “I heard a few shots, and then I saw a white van start to move away from the policemen, not towards them,” he said. “After he started to move, he [the driver] was surely scared and tried to get away, the barrage of fire from the policemen started. They surrounded the truck, fired from all directions, some from in front and some from behind; at that point the driver was apparently wounded, lost control, continued down the hill, and that’s when the policemen were hurt. As far as I could tell, the driver was wounded and wasn’t in control of the vehicle.”
Erdan accused Odeh of incitement and called for the attorney general to open an investigation. "MK Odeh must be investigated for incitement to violence and obstruction of the police as they fulfilled their duty," said Erdan. "I hope this day will not mark a turning point in relations between Bedouin and the state authorities,” Erdan added. “But if it does, Knesset member Odeh made a very large contribution to that.”
Following the release of the video, Erdan said that the police shooting seen at the beginning of the video are warning shots which were not directed at the driver.
Residents reported widespread use of riot control measures and said that Odeh was wounded after being hit with rubber bullets in the head and back. He was admitted to Soroka Medical Center with slight bleeding from the head. An officer sustained injuries to his leg in the incident.
The demolition of homes in Umm al-Hiran began in November 2016, following an agreement with the state. They were the first demolitions since the battle began between the roughly 1,000 village residents, on whose land the Jewish town of Hiran is supposed to be built. The structures lie outside the area zoned for the new town of Hiran; yet all the village homes are slated for demolition. Residents lost a Supreme Court appeal against the destruction of the homes.
The court ruled on the demolition of the illegally built homes, and its order will be executed, in Umm al-Hiran as well, Erdan said. “The police have no leeway regarding what missions to undertake, that is how it is in democratic countries.”
The government recently vowed to crack down on illegal Arab construction following criticism from West Bank settlers, who, following a court-ordered evacuation of the illegally built outpost of Amona, demanded the law be enforced equally.
Last week, authorities demolished 11 homes in the central city of Kalansua, sparking a general strike among Israeli Arabs, who say the problem stems from long-standing barriers to acquiring proper permits put in place by the state.
Mohammed Baraka, chairman of the umbrella group the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, argued that Benjamin Netanyahu bears the responsibility for what happened, charging that the prime minister has been fanning fires because of his own problems. “I warn Netanyahu not to lead to more bloodshed and total destruction,” Baraka said. The committee has called an emergency session.
'Declaration of war'
“Last week there was a preliminary battle in Kalansua. Today was the declaration of war,” said Meretz legislator Esawi Freige. “This is a racist, criminal government, a government that bribes Jews who violate construction laws, while violently evicting Arabs from homes in which they’ve lived for 40 years. There is no justification for violence, certainly not for running over policemen, but there is also no justification for the violent, racist eviction of Arabs just in order to resettle the place with Jews.”
Rivlin: We must fight terror
"We are in the midst of a terrible event in which police officer 1st Sgt. Erez Levi was murdered, may his memory be blessed, by an attacker in a criminal act of terror," said President Reuven Rivlin added that he'd spoken to Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich and Arab leaders, telling them that, "We must clearly distinguish between the terrorist attack that happened this morning and law enforcement operations and the demolition of the illegal structures that are not possible to approve. We must fight terror with a heavy hand and without compromise."
The Joint List warned against, "the results of the dangerous escalation of the demolition of the Arab villages in the Negev and the creation of settlements on their ruins ... The military assault of the police and security forces on Umm al-Hiran raises memories of the displacement and the destruction of Arab towns in the Nakba in 1948," said the political party, using the Arab term for the catastrophe associated with Israel's War of Independence.
"The law in Israel must be enforced without distinction and in every place," said MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) "and public servants have no place in a protest against the enforcement of the law. The job of leadership at the moment is, first of all, to assuage the tensions and bring this horror show under control."
The Coalition Against Racism in Israel said that it condemns "the escalation and the excessive police violence that caused the death of two people and harmed many residents. This policy is leading to severe damage to the fabric of the fragile relations between Arab society and Jewish society in Israel."
The local council of Hura called a general strike following the incidents. Thousands of schoolchildren were sent home and the local government shut down services.
AP contributed background to this report