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Israeli minister backtracks on claims of vehicular attack during Umm al-Hiran raid

Feb. 22, 2017 5:11 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 23, 2017 11:35 A.M.)
Israeli Public Security Minister tell Israel's Channel 10 on Jan.18: "Unequivocally, yes, this is a terror attack."
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- More than a month after Israeli police shot and killed Yaqoub Abu al-Qian in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran during a demolition raid, Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan seemingly backtracked on his initial claim that Abu al-Qian was carrying out a vehicular attack motivated by Islamic extremism when he was shot.

Following the incident, multiple eyewitnesses, video footage, and testimonies from Abu al-Qian's family members contradicted the minister’s claim, saying that Israeli police opened fire on the local high school math teacher when he posed no threat, which caused him to lose control of the vehicle and ram into Israeli policeman Erez Levi, who was also killed.

On Wednesday, Israeli media sites reported that remarks made Erdan at a police gathering in Beersheba implied that Israeli authorities were no longer classifying the incident as a terror attack.

Israeli daily Haaretz quoted Erdan as referring to the incident as "difficult and regrettable," adding that "we mustn’t let anyone try to take this particular incident -- in which unfortunately both a policeman and a civilian were killed -- and draw inferences from it regarding the totality of the relationship between the Bedouin population and the police.”

“We must learn the lessons, once it becomes clear what exactly happened there,” he added, noting that an investigation by Israel’s Justice Ministry on the case was still ongoing. “Then we must go forward, strengthen this relationship, and bolster police services and enforcement against lawbreakers who first and foremost hurt our beloved Bedouin community, with which we want to continue living in coexistence in the Negev.”

The comments seemed to imply that Israeli authorities sought to distance themselves from the minister's comments immediately following incident, when he said that “the picture arising from the police probe was very clear: This was an attack, a deliberate car-ramming.”

Erdan had also told Israel’s Radio Darom at the time: “After the investigation concludes, if it turns out the police were wrong, I too will demand explanations from them,” he said. “But to present this as if it were one person’s story versus another when a policeman has been murdered in an attack -- I think that’s wrong and inappropriate.”

Erdan and Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld had said that during a raid of Abu al-Qian’s home the day of his killing that police found three copies of a Hebrew-language newspaper from 2015 with the headline: "ISIS bomb that took down a plane," which was presented as the only evidence to back up the claim that the man carried out an attack motivated by Islamic extremism.

However, according to Haaretz, Israel’s internal security agency the Shin Bet reported two weeks after the incident that they had yet to find any actual evidence connecting Abu al-Qian to ISIS.

Human rights organization Adalah responded to Erdan's recent remarks -- which it interpreted as an announcement by police that the Umm al-Hiran killing was not a terror attack -- saying: “From the outset, Adalah maintained that the version of events in Umm al-Hiran promoted by the Israeli police and (Erdan) was both false and inflammatory."

The organization noted that it had filed an appeal to the Israeli Justice Ministry’s Police Investigative Division (PID) on behalf of the Abu al-Qian family on the day of his killing, and that it had also appealed to Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit demanding that he open an investigation into Erdan’s "racist incitement against Arab citizens of Israel."

Responding to reports interpreting Erdan's comments as backtracking, Israeli police spokeswoman Luba al-Samri reiterated in a written statement that an investigation was still ongoing and that “the information being spread to public is one interpretation and incomplete, and fails to include details of the case’s many sides.”

Israeli Police Commissioner Ronnie al-Sheikh also responded to reports, telling Israeli news site Ynet: "I can't be responsible for any unofficial publications. I do know with certainty, from the head of the Police Investigations Unit, that conclusions have yet to be reached.”

In the wake of the deadly incident, members of the Joint List, which represents parties led by Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset, also accused police of intentionally covering up the fact that they shot Abu al-Qian in cold blood.

Joint List MKs had traveled to Umm al-Hiran to help locals attempting to resist the demolitions, when the head of the coalition, Ayman Odeh, was injured after being shot in the head by police with sponge-tipped bullet when clashes erupted with police.

Erdan had accused Odeh of traveling to Umm al-Hiran to "incite violence" and warned that there might be "criminal implications for him.”

Erdan also said on social media that "any attempts to murder police securing a court-ordered evacuation will get the same response,” referring to the killing of Abu al-Qian.

Abu al-Qian’s death and the subsequent demolition of more than a dozen homes in Umm al-Hiran sparked widespread outrage and numerous demonstrations attended by thousands, with protesters calling on Erdan to resign for “lying” to the Israeli public, saying they held him responsible for the two killings.

Days ago, a video was shared on social media showing three Israeli activists disrupting an Israeli police ceremony before each of them were detained by Israeli police.

One by one, the three can bee seen rising from their seats in the audience to address Erdan, before being escorted out of the room.

“Gilad Erdan, are you done inciting against Israeli-Arabs? Where is the cop who shot Abu al-Qian? You are a racist who incites, you are inciting against civilians, minister,” one of the protesters said.

Since a wave of unrest began in October 2015, UN investigations have shown that, in a number of instances, Israeli forces have implemented a policy of extrajudicial execution, shooting dead Palestinians who did not present an imminent threat at the time of their death -- amid a backdrop of impunity for Israeli forces committing the killings.

According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, while Israeli authorities conduct internal criminal investigations into every case which results in a fatality, only one Israeli official was charged with the death of a Palestinian in in 2016, when 112 Palestinians were killed.

Meanwhile, according to Haaretz, between October 2015 and August 2016, only once were Israeli police thoroughly investigated and questioned on suspicion of opening fire in violation of regulations, despite video evidence showing that officers may have acted improperly.
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