In Umm al-Hiran, Palestinian lives don’t matter

Palestinian citizens of Israel are no strangers to these disappointing, albeit rather inevitable conclusions.

FRIENDS AND RELATIVES carry the body of Ya’qoub Abu al-Qi’an during his funeral in the Beduin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
FRIENDS AND RELATIVES carry the body of Ya’qoub Abu al-Qi’an during his funeral in the Beduin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
On January 18, 2017, Yacoub Abu al-Qi’an, a 50-year-old Palestinian Beduin citizen of Israel and math teacher from Umm al-Hiran, an unrecognized village in the Negev, was shot dead by Israeli police officers while driving his van out of the village. He and his family had just packed their van with the few belongings they were able to recover before the state demolished their home.
According to news reports this past week, the Police Investigations Unit (PID) officially closed its year-long probe into the deadly events of that morning, absolving the officers involved of any misconduct.
Neither the killing of Abu al-Qi’an nor the PID’s decision to close the investigation are exceptions to some rule (including the rule of law in Israel). In fact, judging from the long history of state violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel (who make up 20% of the population), it is clear that the lack of accountability and justice for Palestinian victims is the rule.
Indeed, Abu al-Qi’an’s death cannot be separated from the story of Umm al-Hiran, which is, after all, the story of Palestine.
In 1948, the Abu al-Qi’an tribe was expelled from their ancestral lands in Khirbet Zubaleh, where Kibbutz Shuval now sits. Eventually, the Israeli military governor ordered them to move to their current location to establish their new village, which was never recognized by the state and to this day appears on no official maps.
For the next five decades, the residents, who were granted citizenship in Israel in 1952, rebuilt their lives in Umm al-Hiran. But in the early 2000s, the Israeli authorities issued evacuation orders to the residents claiming that they were “trespassers.” Israel also had its own plans for the area: to build a new town exclusively for Jewish citizens.
Even though the Beduin residents proved that they were relocated to this land by military order, the High Court still upheld the evacuation and demolition orders. The court’s ruling that the state had a “compelling” reason to revoke permission to reside on the land is a stunning admission of a practice the state has always found compelling: establishing new Jewish towns on the ruins of Palestinian homes.
And so it came to pass that the Israel Police were in Umm al-Hiran on January 18 to oversee the execution of the eviction orders for several of the families, including that of Yacoub Abu al-Qi’an. As extensively covered by this outlet and others at the time, police shot Yacoub while he was driving his van. He then lost control of the vehicle, which struck and killed a police officer. Yacoub was denied medical treatment and left to bleed out and die. Every relevant Israeli institution (including the media) attempted to cover up/justify the killing by falsely claiming Yacoub was a terrorist affiliated with Islamic State. The claims were all disproven, and some Israeli authorities, like Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, backed away from their deliberate lies.
The Israel Police nonetheless confiscated Abu al-Qi’an’s body for days and denied requests by his family to release it for burial, until the Supreme Court intervened following a petition on behalf of the family.
And this week, after nearly a year of investigation, the media is reporting that the investigation into Yacoub’s death is now officially closed.
Palestinian citizens of Israel are no strangers to these disappointing, albeit rather inevitable conclusions – after all, why would the police hold themselves accountable? After 13 Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli police fire during the events of October 2000, the Or Commission found in 2003 that there was no justification for the live gunfire that caused their deaths, and that none of the cases posed a real threat warranting lethal force.
Still, the PID at the time also decided to close the cases without bringing the guilty officers to justice. In fact, since 2000, more than 55 Palestinian citizens of Israel have been killed by the police, and no one was held accountable.
The reasoning (or lack thereof) behind the PID’s decision on the October 2000 events is what allowed for Abu al-Qi’an’s death 17 years later. The Israel Police are emboldened by a culture of impunity when Palestinian citizens’ lives are at stake. The police regulations for using live fire are thrown out the window, simply because Palestinians’ mere presence and movement is deemed threatening, and therefore justifies utilizing lethal force.
This is no mere failure of the system; the system is designed this way. The margin of error allotted to Israeli police officers in their interactions with Palestinian citizens is deliberately broad. Preconceived assumptions of degrees of threat, which would justify the use of deadly force, are rarely scrutinized by those tasked with investigating such allegations. The police unit thus arrived in Umm al-Hiran that morning in a hubristic and military mindset, viewing the citizens in the village as enemies.
This conclusion becomes even clearer when the evacuation of Umm al-Hiran is compared with another one that took place two weeks later in Amona, an illegal settlement in the West Bank established on private Palestinian land. Although 24 police officers were wounded during the evacuation due to violence by the settler residents, not one shot was fired.
Given all this, it can hardly be said that Abu al-Qi’an’s case is exceptional when it comes to Palestinian citizens’ lives. It is merely another example, and unfortunately not the last, of a culture of police impunity created under a system designed to produce such results.
The author is a human rights attorney at Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and a doctoral student at Harvard Law School.