Apology over portrayal of Bedouin citizen as a terrorist in 2017 incident does not just expose police crimes, it deepens the deception
It is unprecedented. Three years after the Israeli government first began vilifying a Palestinian teacher to retrospectively justify his murder by Israel’s security forces, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a public apology to his family last week. Yacoub Abu al-Qiyan was not a “terrorist” after all, the Israeli prime minister conceded.
And there was more. Israeli police, said Netanyahu, had portrayed 50-year-old Abu al-Qiyan as “a terrorist to protect themselves” and stop their crimes being exposed.
They shot him even though he posed no threat to anyone. Abu al-Qiyan was unarmed and driving at less than 10 kilometres per hour at the time. After shooting him, police left him to bleed to death for half an hour, denying him medical assistance that could have saved his life.
To cover up their role, police falsely claimed that he had tried to ram them with his car. The Israeli state prosecution service was deeply implicated in this affair, too, having reportedly blocked a criminal investigation, even though they knew what really happened.
Netanyahu said his government had been deceived by the serial lies back in early 2017, implying that that was why he wrongly accused Abu al-Qiyan of committing a “terror attack”.
Hail of gunfire
Such soul-searching and contrition on matters relating to the abuse and killing of a Palestinian are startlingly rare from any Israeli politician. But from Netanyahu, such comments rightly raise an eyebrow. What is going on?
In fact, Netanyahu is telling only partial truths.
Abu al-Qiyan was certainly no terrorist, nor was he a member of the Islamic State (IS), as police repeatedly claimed. He was a school deputy principal and a member of Israel’s large Palestinian minority. That made him – unlike Palestinians in the occupied territories – an Israeli citizen, though one with few of the rights enjoyed by the country’s Jewish majority. Palestinian “citizens” comprise a fifth of Israel’s population.
Bedouin citizens such as Abu al-Qiyan face the most discrimination of all Palestinian communities inside Israel. Nonetheless, he had managed to gain a PhD in chemistry, the first Bedouin to do so in Israel.
And, as Netanyahu correctly observed, Abu al-Qiyan was indeed a victim of extreme police brutality – something all too familiar to Palestinians, whether in the occupied territories or inside Israel.
When his car came under a hail of gunfire, he was hit twice by live rounds. As a result, he lost control of his car, which sped downhill out of control, hitting and killing a police officer. Abu al-Qiyan was then left to bleed to death as police and Israeli medical teams refused to come to his aid.
“Had he received treatment … he would not have died,” concluded Dr Maya Forman, who helped conduct the autopsy. That’s why Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian legislator in the Israeli parliament and the head of the Joint List faction, called Abu al-Qiyan’s killing a police “murder” last week.
Netanyahu was also right that Israeli police lied, both about who Abu al-Qiyan was and the circumstances of his death. But then again, that is standard operating procedure for Israeli security forces when Palestinian civilians die at their hands. Lack of transparency, cover-ups and impunity are givens.
Where Netanyahu was wrong was in suggesting that he was ever deceived by the police claims. He surely knew almost from the start that Abu al-Qiyan was not a terrorist, even while publicly calling him one.
How can we be certain? Because I and many others knew about the police deceptions soon after Abu al-Qiyan was shot and left to die. In February 2017, for example, a month after his death, I wrote an article setting out the lies I had been told by police, which had been rapidly exposed by forensic and video evidence – lies Netanyahu claims only just to have learned about. If I knew the truth three years ago, so did he.
In fact, the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence service, which is directly answerable to the prime minister, concluded within two days that the incident was not a terror attack.
Netanyahu wasn’t tricked. He colluded in the character assassination of Abu al-Qiyan after the Bedouin man’s assassination by police.
Indeed, Netanyahu and his ministers amplified those slurs to include the rest of Israel’s Palestinian minority. His public security minister at the time, Gilad Erdan, demonised the minority’s representatives in parliament, accusing them of condoning terrorism and inciting against police by denying that Abu al-Qiyan’s killing was justified.
Whatever he says now, Netanyahu’s claim last week that “yesterday we found out [Abu al-Qiyan] was not a terrorist” did not end the lies; it continued and expanded them.
The only reason the prime minister decided to break with Israel’s decades-old policy of dissembling to ensure its security services enjoy impunity over the deaths of Palestinians was to help himself out of a jam. It certainly was not because he cared about a glaring injustice, or about Abu al-Qiyan’s vilification and the family’s suffering – both of which he very much contributed to.
Netanyahu’s goal was not to clear Abu al-Qiyan’s name, but to tarnish the reputation of Israel’s police and prosecution service – and for all the wrong reasons. The police force and prosecutors involved in the killing of Abu al-Qiyan, and the cover-up of that crime, are the same police force and prosecution service that will be acting against Netanyahu in December, when his corruption trial begins in earnest.
Netanyahu faces a string of charges that he committed bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His political survival now depends on his ability to breathe life into a narrative that the Israeli police and legal system are themselves corrupt and waging an anti-democratic war to bring him down.
This is the story he is trying to craft: if police and prosecutors could deceive even Israel’s prime minister for three years over the killing of an Israeli citizen, are they not also capable of deceiving the public by accusing Netanyahu himself of being corrupt?
Should Netanyahu succeed, he will demand that all corruption charges against him are dropped. Another Palestinian legislator, Aida Touma-Suleiman, tweeted that Netanyahu’s apology was worthless, calling it the “cynical use of blood for ominous political purposes”.
Netanyahu has been helped, of course, by the fact that, though his claims of a supposed establishment campaign against him are preposterous, he is not wrong about the profound corruption and anti-democratic nature of Israel’s law enforcement and prosecution system.
They are indeed corrupt – just not not against him.
But when it comes to the treatment of Palestinians, whether those in the occupied territories or inside Israel, Israeli security services have trigger-happy fingers and contempt for Palestinian lives. Investigations rarely take place, and when they do, their findings are preordained. Prosecutors willingly turn a blind eye to police misdeeds, hastily closing such files, as they did with Abu al-Qiyan.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) demanded the return of the body of Ahmed Erekat, a 26-year-old Palestinian shot by Israeli soldiers 10 weeks ago in violation of both Israeli and international law.
His death parallels Abu al-Qiyan’s own treatment. Erekat was shot dead by soldiers after what appeared to be a traffic accident at a checkpoint in the West Bank in which a soldier was lightly injured. Video shows Erekat emerging from his car, posing no visible threat, only to be gunned down by the soldiers. Medical crews were again blocked from approaching.
Efforts by Human Rights Watch to find out whether Erekat was armed, or whether Israel has conducted an investigation and, if so, what its findings were, have all gone unanswered.
Similarly, in late May Israeli police killed an autistic Palestinian man, Iyad al-Hallaq, shooting him reportedly at close range, after chasing him through the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City. There were at least 10 cameras in that area, according to local media, but Israeli authorities have claimed none were working at the time of the incident.
These and many similar incidents show that Palestinian life isn’t just cheap. It’s worthless in the eyes of the Israeli police and army – and in Netanyahu’s eyes, too. Abu al-Qiyan’s life has meaning to the Israeli prime minister now only because it can be exploited to keep him in power.
Abu al-Qiyan’s story isn’t an aberration. It sheds light on the way Israel’s entire state apparatus systematically dehumanises Palestinians, both in life and in death.
The context for Abu al-Qiyan’s killing in January 2017 were Israeli police efforts to implement an abhorrent decision by the Netanyahu government to demolish his village, Umm al-Hiran, in Israel’s south, in the semi-desert Negev region. The entire village, home to 1,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel, was due to be razed so it could be replaced by a new, exclusively Jewish community under nearly the same name, Hiran.
In fact, it was the second time these Bedouin villagers were being ethnically cleansed by their own state. Sixty years earlier – long before 24-hour rolling news coverage or social media – they had been expelled by the Israeli army from their ancestral lands to make way for another exclusively Jewish community.
Remember, the village of Umm al-Hiran is located in Israel, and its inhabitants are all formally Israeli citizens. Nonetheless, the politicians and courts had no interest in protecting the rights of these Palestinian citizens. The state’s official policy of “Judaising” the Negev – forcing out Palestinian citizens to make way for Jewish citizens – took precedence.
Years of struggle by the villagers, aided by international and local human rights groups, had come to naught. The country’s highest court had ruled: “The residents of Umm al-Hiran have no right to the place.”
Trying to avoid bad publicity, Netanyahu’s government sent in hundreds of members of a paramilitary unit, the Border Police, under cover of night to forcibly evict the villagers. They arrived with live ammunition, rubber-coated metal bullets, tear gas and stun grenades.
Car veered erratically
Abu al-Qiyan had decided to leave before the demolitions began to avoid any confrontation with police. Other villagers staged a protest in the village, alongside Palestinian members of the Israeli parliament and left-wing activists, watched by a handful of journalists.
Abu al-Qiyan packed his car with the last belongings from his home, and then headed along a dusty track to reach the main road. As is the case with dozens of similar Bedouin communities in the Negev, there were no paved roads in Umm al-Hiran, because – as part of its Judaisation policy – Israel has denied these villages all basic services.
As Abu al-Qiyan carefully navigated the track down a small hill in the dark, Israeli police opened fire, aiming in the direction of his car’s headlights. Dozens of shots were fired. He was hit twice, an autopsy report revealed: once in the torso and once in the knee, rendering him incapable of controlling the car.
A police aerial video of the incident shows that, after the shots, the car suddenly sped up and veered erratically down the slope. At the bottom, the car crashed into a group of police, killing Erez Levy.
Bleeding to death
There had been no reason to shoot Abu al-Qiyan, apart from the racist preconceptions of the Israeli police officers there that night. Their force has long cultivated an institutional view of Palestinians, including those who are Israeli citizens, as not fully human and as an “enemy”. That last observation was made not by me, but by an official, judicial-led commission of inquiry into a spate of other killings by Israeli police of Palestinian citizens.
Because the police officers arriving in Umm al-Hiran regarded its inhabitants as criminals – a view that has been expressed towards Bedouins by all Israeli governments, including Netanyahu’s – they could not interpret Abu al-Qiyan’s car speeding towards them in any way other than as a car-ramming.
Cause and effect were easily reversed in their minds. They shot Abu al-Qiyan without reason. They created the circumstances that led to the death of a fellow officer. But in the racist worldview of Israeli police, the bullets fired at Abu al-Qiyan were retrospectively justified by an imagined “terror attack” the same bullets had caused.
Complicity in Abu al-Qiyan’s racist murder was not confined to the police officers. Two doctors and a team of paramedics at the scene joined them in allowing Abu al-Qiyan to bleed to death. They were only 10 metres from him as his life slowly ebbed away.
One of the paramedics explained that they did not help Abu al-Qiyan because they were not ordered to do so by police, as though they needed an invitation. Justifying the inaction, a paramedic told an investigator: “Sad, it’s easy to talk now but in the field the signs were that it was an attack.” In those circumstances, leaving Abu al-Qiyan to bleed to death was acceptable, it seems.
The police lies came thick and fast, but were quickly exposed by video and forensic evidence. Abu al-Qiyan had not raced towards police in a terror attack. He had not had his headlights turned off, supposedly fuelling their suspicions. They had not fired into the air, or only at his car’s tyres.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently reported on transcripts of an interview with the officer who shot first, known only as S. He admitted that his life had not been in danger and that he fired not at the vehicle’s tyres – the official story – but at the centre of the car.
Police claims that they had proof that Abu al-Qiyan was an IS supporter never materialised. Later, the Shin Bet intelligence service quietly closed its investigation, unable to find any signs it was a “terror attack”.
Police were caught out in another blatant deception over that night’s events. Ayman Odeh, the head of a parliamentary delegation for the Palestinian minority monitoring events in Umm al-Hiran, was left with a bleeding head wound.
Police claimed he had been hit by a stone thrown by villagers. In fact, as Odeh claimed and photographic evidence proved, police had fired rubber-coated metal bullets at him, as they had at the villagers. Had one of those bullets hit Odeh’s head a fraction lower, he could have been blinded.
Photos of the scene show a group of armed police relaxing and chatting next to Odeh, as he crawls in the dirt, stunned, with his head profusely bleeding. Despite his parliamentary privilege, Odeh was shot as he tried to assist Abu al-Qiyan. Eyal Weizman, the head of Forensic Architecture, which used video and other evidence to piece together that night’s events, has noted that had Odeh been allowed to reach Abu al-Qiyan, the teacher’s life could have been saved.
‘Blood on your hands’
In the following days, the demonisation of Abu al-Qiyan – and of Palestinian leaders, such as Odeh for disputing the police narrative – was led by the Netanyahu government.
Erdan, now Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, called the villagers of Umm al-Hiran “violent thieves”. He accused Odeh and other Palestinian legislators of being equally responsible for the death of police officer Levy as the “terrorist” Abu al-Qiyan. “This blood is on your hands too,” he wrote on social media.
In a 2017 post praising Erez, Netanyahu said those “supporting and inciting for terrorism” – code for the Palestinian leadership in Israel – would face “all necessary force”, including even denial of citizenship.
The Netanyahu government’s demonisation campaign provided the excuse for further indignities suffered by Abu al-Qiyan’s family and his village. The family was denied compensation, and are today reported to be still living in mobile homes after their home was demolished following the 2017 incident.
In line with its policy towards “terrorists”, Israeli authorities delayed releasing Abu al-Qiyan’s body and refused a public burial. As his nephew, Raed, told me angrily five days after the killing, as he attended a funeral at which the body never arrived: “Not only did the police kill him in cold blood, but now they are holding his body hostage to try to make more convincing their ridiculous story that he is a terrorist.”
It has apparently taken three and a half years for Netanyahu to learn what Raed Abu al-Qiyan knew from the start.
Circle of complicity
Nothing that happened to Abu al-Qiyan that night – or in the weeks and months that followed – was exceptional. The police lies and the state cover-up were not an aberration, nor was the subsequent incitement directed at Israel’s Palestinian minority. Those are all the norm.
What is exceptional are the circumstances that allowed the truth to finally gain traction – differing from cases like those mentioned earlier of Ahmed Erekat and Iyad al-Hallaq.
Because Abu al-Qiyan was killed inside Israel rather than in the occupied territories, the actions of police were initially investigated, in part to try to prove he was a terrorist, even if the findings were never supposed to see the light. Because witnesses were present, including journalists and politicians, it was easier to piece together the real events and discredit the police account.
And now, because Netanyahu is in trouble and facing trial, he is ready to spill the beans to save his neck. He is using the truth about al-Qiyan to bury the truth about himself.
This moment of dishonest truth-telling should be grasped nonetheless, because it briefly exposes Israel’s treatment of Palestinians – even those who are nominally its citizens – in all its hideous, racist depravity.
It shows how wide, in a self-declared Jewish state, the circle of complicity is in a murder such as Abu al-Qiyan’s and the subsequent cover-up. That circle embraced police, prosecutors, doctors, politicians – and, of course, the prime minister himself.
• First published in Middle East Eye