High Court hears NGO request to reopen Umm al-Hiran probe

Watchdog has rejected opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu's accusation of cover-up.

High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020 (photo credit: COURTESY HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE)
High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020

The High Court of Justice heard a petition by multiple NGOs on Thursday to reopen the prosecution’s probe into the handling of a deadly incident at the southern Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in January 2017.

During the incident, a policeman and a Bedouin were both killed during protests surrounding the state’s demolition of unrecognized Bedouin residences at the village.

Leading the petition, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) highlighted that in September 2020, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused former chief prosecutor Shai Nitzan of covering up the incident.

The thrust of Netanyahu’s claims was likely more part of a broader strategy to paint the prosecution as political in a way that would assist him to delegitimize the ongoing public corruption indictment against him.

However, PCATI, as well as the NGO Adalah, has argued that by combining criticism by Netanyahu and of former Police Investigations Department head Uri Carmel of the police probe of the incident, there is a basis to reopen the case and reach different conclusions.

UMM AL-HIRAN, a Bedouin village in the southern Negev. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
UMM AL-HIRAN, a Bedouin village in the southern Negev. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Netanyahu himself was responding to a Channel 12 report that showed embarrassing internal emails between Nitzan and Carmel in which they condemned the behavior of then-police chief Roni Alsheich for allegedly trying to cover for his officers.

In May 2018, Nitzan decided to close the criminal probes of Bedouin Yacub Abu al-Kian and Border Police officer Erez Levi.

Nitzan said that after reviewing additional evidence from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), neither he nor the agency could determine whether terror motives were involved on the part of the Bedouin.

He said that either way, the police involved in shooting Kian had not committed a crime.

Whether Kian had been innocent or not, Nitzan said the police had reasonably felt in danger by the circumstances, even if what occurred was a tragic misunderstanding.

At Thursday’s hearing, PCATI continued to press for the case to be reopened on a number of grounds.

Not only does the NGO want the police role reinvestigated and the name of Kian cleared from any ambiguity of being a terrorist, but it also flagged problems with the police failing to try to get Kian medical care.

One issue that could have repercussions far beyond the Kian case is that the defense for the involved police officials said that one reason they did not rush to get Kian medical attention was that he had been declared an “X.”

According to this narrative, an X is a person who is already dead, so there is no reason to get them medical attention.

But lawyers defending the police would also prefer to argue that Kian was alive while he was driving the vehicle that ran over a policeman, because this could show he was a terrorist and had not merely fallen on the wheel and accelerator after dying.

If the lawyers defending police officials argue that Kian was alive, then X would only mean he was neutralized, not dead, and there should have been a rush to get him medical attention.

Initially, the police and many right-wing politicians had labeled Kian a terrorist after the car he was driving ran over and killed officer Levi.

But subsequently, the PID was called in to probe police for possibly having illegally shot Kian, in which case the Bedouin’s vehicle may only have run over Levi after he was shot and possibly already dead, but with the vehicle still in drive.

PCATI highlighted that it could be broadly problematic for different police officials to define X as dead while others defined it as neutralized.

The NGOs do have an uphill battle since Justice Ministry oversight czar David Rozen already endorsed Nitzan’s finding in January.

Rozen, the judge who sent former prime minister Ehud Olmert to jail, is widely respected and viewed as being above politics.

The oversight czar did not express a clear opinion about Nitzan’s decision, though he noted that the former state attorney had based his decision on a professional review of the evidence as well as the view of Carmel.

Rozen’s criticism was the strongest regarding the police, saying the police had ignored Nitzan’s directives and failed to discipline the officers involved in the incident.

He said that the prosecution, PID and the general police must streamline the process for disciplining police in such cases, so that a directive to discipline officers cannot be ignored.