Thousands of mourners turned out Tuesday for the funeral of Yacoub Abu al-Kaeean, the teacher who was killed along with St.-Sgt. Maj. Erez Levi last week, in disputed circumstances during a police demolition operation in the unrecognized Negev Beduin village of Umm al-Hiran.
Police say Abu al-Kaeean rammed his car into Levi in a terrorist attack, but eyewitnesses said his car accelerated only after shots were fired at it by police, and a video by a police drone appears to support that conclusion. Mourners consider him a martyr murdered by police and then framed as a terrorist.
Questions are mounting about many aspects of the incident. According to eyewitness testimonies by Umm al-Hiran residents published in The Jerusalem Post on Monday, police fired on an unmarked police vehicle during the fatal January 18 court-sanctioned demolition operation, which was aimed at clearing Umm al-Hiran so that a Jewish town can be built in its place. Those close to Abu al-Kaeean and much of the larger Beduin community believe that if Levi’s body – which was buried the same day as his death – is autopsied, it would show that he died as a result of being shot. Police say he died from car ramming.
At the funeral in a cemetery near Umm al-Hiran some mourners chanted: “With spirit and blood we will redeem you, the martyr.” But contrary to police predictions, there were no instances of violence.
The police had refused to relinquish the body to the family since January 18, setting as a condition that the funeral be held at night with a limited number of participants.
But the Supreme Court on Monday night ordered the police to hand over the body for burial, without those conditions being met.
Abu al-Kaeean’s January 18 death and the bulldozing inside the village of 10 houses, including his own, have intensified anger among Beduin long resentful of what they allege are discriminatory government policies. Yesterday, the well-liked math teacher was elevated to the status of a symbol and a martyr for all of Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up one-fifth of the country’s population.
“No one escapes death, but not everyone achieves martyrdom,” Muhammad Abu Dadis, chairman of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement said during a charged eulogy at the graveside.
“God chooses the martyrs among us.” As young men shoveled dirt, mourners filed up to Yacoub’s brothers and comforted them. People on the edge of the grave held their heads in their hands, weeping.
“Our message is, hands off our houses and stop targeting us,” Abu Dadis said.
He condemned “incitement by ministers and the media, which is giving a false version that he was an ISIS terrorist and carried out a ramming attack.”
Abu Dadis called for unity in his speech, which was strictly political and lacked any reference to Abu al-Kaeean’s personal qualities or character.
“If the enemy targets you, you must unite with your people, you must reconcile,” he said.
“The criminal who killed the martyr didn’t know that his bullet would unite us.”
Zaina Jafra, an environmental educator who traveled from Nazareth to be at the funeral, said: “I came here because I’m angry. This shouldn’t have happened to him. I came to sound my voice that this racism should stop.”
“He’s a father and a teacher and what happened to him could happen to any of us,” she said. “For me, he is a symbol of the Palestinian who did not accept the unfairness of the state. The very fact that he lived in Umm al-Hiran, that he stayed with his family there and didn’t let the demolition orders force him to leave, was resistance against the unfair.”
Musa al-Tihaya, a construction worker from the nearby city of Rahat, took a day off to attend the funeral. “I came to show the establishment that we identify with Yacoub and his struggle against demolitions.
He has become a symbol of just struggle against the brutality of the establishment.
He was killed because of the policy of home demolitions.
The shooting at him was unjustified. We want to know the whole truth. If there is justice, they will make a commission of inquiry.”
Ibrahim al-Amour, a lecturer in education at Sakhnin College and member of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement who knew Abu al-Kaeean, said: “He’s a lovely man, generous, his wife is a college lecturer. If there is a good person in this country, it is him. How can the head of the police say he’s Islamic State? He has no shame.”
The funeral procession started in Umm al-Hiran and traveled along the only available access road – hazardous and plagued by potholes – a glaring sign of government neglect of the village, which is not hooked up to water or electricity. The convoy then took the highway to a cemetery near Hura Township, where a large crowd had gathered.
This is the second time Umm al-Hiran families have been displaced. In 1956, the army forced residents to relocate from the Wadi Zbala area of the Negev to their current location. But the state never recognized their ownership of the land, and a 2015 Supreme Court decision ruled it state land, paving the way for establishment of the Jewish town of Hiran in place of Umm al-Hiran. The house demolitions are an effort to force Umm al-Hiran residents to relocate to Hura on the state's terms.