If an ongoing Justice Ministry probe finds that Beduin teacher Yacoub Abu al-Kaeean, who was killed during the January 18 Umm al-Hiran demolition operation, was not a terrorist, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will apologize for having called him a murderer, he declared on Tuesday.
Netanyahu made the statement while in the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, where he is pursuing a defamation case against reporter Yigal Sarna.
Netanyahu was asked by Sarna’s lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, if he tries to be truthful with his Facebook posts, to which he responded, “I try to.” He was then asked how he could have called Abu al-Kaeean a murderer. Netanyahu responded, “The issue is still under investigation, but if it is found that what was said [by me] was untrue, I will apologize.”
Netanyahu’s remark comes as Justice Ministry officials move toward the conclusion of an investigation that, according to media reports, will show that Abu al-Kaeean did not deliberately run over policeman St.-Sgt.-Maj. Erez Levi as Netanyahu, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Inspector-General Roni Alsheikh claimed that day. Alsheikh went so far as to say that Abu al-Kaeean belonged to Islamic State.
Police remained insistent it was a deliberate ramming attack despite multiple eyewitnesses who stated that Abu al-Kaeean’s vehicle accelerated only after shots were fired at it and a police video appeared to support that conclusion With the expected findings, there have been some expressions of regret over the rush to conclusion and the tragic outcome.
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel told Beduin leaders last week, “I take advantage of this platform to say that if there really was a failure in Umm al-Hiran, I say here to you that I apologize profoundly. We will wait for the results of the investigation, but there are various voices saying there were severe failures and if there were, I ask to give my apology to the family, and for the possibility to visit and speak personally with them.”
Erdan defended himself recently by saying he got his information from police in the field. But in a post on Facebook, he also said that if it becomes clear that Abu al-Kaeean did not carry out a deliberate ramming attack, an apology would be issued to his family.
But Netanyahu’s statement has become the closest the government has come to saying it is possible security forces killed an innocent man without justification, and that authorities then misbranded him as a terrorist, something Umm al-Hiran residents have insisted all along.
Hamad Abu al-Kaeean, Yacoub’s brother, reacted by saying an apology would not be enough, and that those responsible for Yacoub’s murder would have to be punished.
“Now they are saying they are waiting for the results of the investigation. I would have wanted them to say that on that day. Of course he has to apologize, but in the family’s view, he who is guilty has to be tried. There was a fatal mistake here and people were murdered for this mistake,” he said.
“You killed him and tried to label him as a member of Islamic State and a terrorist. You murdered the name of the family and you demolished all those houses and the world of Yacoub and his family. Is it really enough for people to say now, ‘I made a mistake?’” he continued.
MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) said apologizing is not enough and that if the Justice Ministry determines that Abu al-Kaeean was not carrying out an attack, Netanyahu “needs to open a new chapter with the Beduin and to regain the confidence not only of the Beduin but of the public as a whole.”
Raja Zaatry, a spokesman for the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, said, “This was not a mistake of mischaracterizing the victim. The main issue is the policy of incitement and house demolition.
The victim was made into a terrorist, despite the fact that he was a teacher and his family members are respected people, teachers and lecturers. Taking responsibility is not just apologizing, it means that the people responsible for the lie and incitement, Erdan and Alsheikh, should resign, and it means stopping the policy of house demolitions.”
The demolitions were aimed at forcing Umm al-Hiran residents to relocate to the nearby Beduin township of Hura so that a new town, Hiran, could be built in place of the village. For the Umm al-Hiran families, it is their second displacement. In 1956, the army forcibly relocated them from the Wadi Zbala area of the Negev to their present location. But they were never given title to the land or hooked up to water or electricity, and a 2015 High Court decision cleared the way for the establishment of Hiran on the site.