Eyewitness accounts published in The Jerusalem Post in which residents of the Negev Beduin village of Umm al-Hiran said police fired at a police vehicle during the January 18 demolition operation there have sparked sharp criticism by an opposition lawmaker of the government’s handling of the incident.
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) said the Post report and other reports emerging about the incident appear to show that the scene of the police operation was a “complete mess.” She also blasted Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan for rushing to say that it was a terrorist ramming attack that killed Sr.-St.-Sgt.- Maj. Erez Levi and wounded at least one other policeman.
The accounts published in the Post
contradict the police version of events that led to the deaths of Levi and driver Yacoub al-Kaeean during the court-ordered demolition operation.
In remarks to the Post, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld implied that the eyewitness accounts of Sabri Abu al-Kaeean and Tayseer Abu al-Kaeean, which were reported in the Post on Monday, were not credible. “The incident is being looked at and examined. It has nothing to do with Beduin who were there. Beduin also said there were no stones [thrown during the operation] and we know that there were stones thrown at police.”
Asked if police had fired on fellow officers, Rosenfeld said: “The incident is still being examined and looked into, but in terms of the Israel Police, they responded based on the threat, the incident and what was taking place at the scene.”
A policeman who was injured during the incident is recovering in Soroka-University Medical Center, where staffers described him as “lightly wounded.” The policeman, whose identity is not being revealed, may have information about what happened during the operation, but Rosenfeld said that he is barred from giving interviews to the media.
He added that the incident in which the policeman was hurt “is still being looked into and examined, but as far as I know, he wasn’t hurt by ‘friendly fire.’” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel Police Commissioner Insp-Gen. Roni Alsheich and Erdan have all said it was a terrorist ramming attack by Yacoub that killed Levi and wounded other policemen. Police said they are investigating whether Yacoub was a member of Islamic State. Umm al-Hiran residents dismiss this and say Yacoub’s car went out of control only after he was shot by police. Police aerial footage from a drone appears to support that conclusion.
On Monday night, the High Court of Justice ordered police to release Yacoub’s body to his family for his funeral to take place on Tuesday. The court rejected the state’s position that “due to tensions in the Negev area” the body should be returned only if the family agreed to a nighttime burial with a limited number of participants.
Svetlova said the Post
’s report underscores the need for an independent commission of inquiry into the Umm al-Hiran affair.
“The matters revealed now and coming out to the press and public, and the report that it’s possible police fired on a police vehicle and that there was a complete mess there, points at how much Likud ministers and other irresponsible politicians rushed to draw premature conclusions.
“Who will pay the price for their incitement against the Arab public and who will bear responsibility for the things that were said?” she asked. “It was said with complete certainty that it was a terrorist attack and it was also attributed to ISIS. But the more we learn, a much more complex picture emerges. Mahash [the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigation’s Department] is investigating it, but I would prefer an independent inquiry commission that will arrive at the truth. The citizens of Israel deserve to know the whole truth.”
The Public Security Ministry declined to comment.
Criticism of the operation also emerged from the Right on Monday.
Former defense minister Moshe Arens termed the demolitions “a human tragedy that should not have been permitted to occur.
“We are in the process of having the Beduin population become loyal citizens of the State of Israel and that doesn’t move things in that direction at all,” he told the Post. “From a human point of view, it’s a very unfortunate incident, something that should not have been done. Even if the High Court of Justice gave its okay, it should not have been done.
“Although there are many differences with Gush Katif, there’s a common denominator of people living in their homes for many years and suddenly being forcibly uprooted. There are High Court decisions that don’t take into account the suffering involved in carrying out the decision, and in Umm al-Hiran, it led to loss of life as well.”
Arens said of Yacoub: “He could be innocent. There’s an investigation, so I’m trying to keep an open mind, but right from the beginning it was not at all clear exactly what happened. I can see that in this situation maybe mistakes have been made and possibly, [Yacoub] Abu al-Kaeean had no intention of hurting anyone, and people misinterpreted the movement of his car as an attempt to hurt the police.
“It’s quite possible there was a misunderstanding there, a mistake was made and two lives were lost in the process.”
Meanwhile, the Public Committee against Torture in Israel and Adalah, the Arab rights organization, have asked the police to investigate the circumstances of the wounding of Joint List leader Ayman Odeh during the demolition operation. Police said at the time that Odeh was injured by a stone.
But in a letter to the Justice Ministry, the two rights groups wrote that when Odeh and other activists heard gunfire, they tried to make their way to the scene of the shooting to understand what happened. “They were blocked, however, by police officers who cursed and struck them even after it was made clear an MK was among the group,” they said in a press release.
“One officer sprayed MK Odeh in the face with pepper spray at point-blank range. Subsequently, as MK Odeh and the activists were retreating from the village, police fired rubber bullets and illumination flares at them, at which time MK Odeh was struck in the head and the back.”
Umm al-Hiran resident Aga Abu al-Khaeean, whose house was demolished in the January 18 operation, told the Post
that day that she saw policemen hitting and shooting at Odeh.