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Netanyahu apologizes three years after Shin Bet clears Arab-Israeli of terrorism

Arab-Israelis say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology for calling Yakub Abu al-Kiyan a terrorist is clearly politically motivated.
Israeli left-wing activists attend a protest against the killing of Iyad Hallak, a disabled Palestinian man shot dead by Israeli police, in Jerusalem on June 9, 2020. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

"This is the second ramming attack in the last few days," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in January 2017. "We are fighting this murderous phenomenon, which has struck both Israel and the world.” It was just hours after a huge police force evacuated the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev. During the eviction, which involved the destruction of residents’ homes and other buildings, a car belonging to a local math teacher, Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, struck  police officer Erez Amadi Levy. Abu al-Kiyan was shot by the police. No one provided Abu al-Kiyan with first aid and he bled to death on the spot.

Though the police described the incident as an intentional vehicular attack, the circumstances behind it were controversial from the beginning. Former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh and former Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan immediately identified it as a terror attack. They claimed that there was evidence that Abu al-Kiyan had identified with the Islamic State. The prime minister later joined the chorus, repeating that it was an intentional attack. Others, however, argued that Abu al-Kiyan had been shot by police, lost control of his car and hit the officer as a result. The incident was investigated by the police's department of internal affairs. The Shin Bet determined that it was an operational failure by the police and not a terrorist attack. Nevertheless, former State Attorney Shai Nitzan closed the case without conclusively determining whether it was an attack after all.

On Sep. 8, three years after the incident, the prime minister finally apologized to Yakub al-Kiyan’s family for turning him from a victim of police violence into a terrorist. Netanyahu took advantage of the opportunity to lash out at the Israeli police and the state attorney’s office, claiming, “Senior officials in the state attorney’s office and police turned him into a terrorist to protect themselves and hurt me.”

Netanyahu’s statement came a day after political commentator for N12 News Amit Segal published a leaked letter from the former state attorney to the police indicating that his office did not want to prosecute the police in the Umm al-Hiran case because it could provide ammunition to those who wish to undermine law enforcement. He also wrote, "The police commissioner indeed acted scandalously here, but there are national interests that must be taken into account.”

Inevitably, Netanyahu pounced on this opportunity to link the state attorney’s office and the police with his own criminal cases.

Would Netanyahu have considered apologizing to the Abu al-Kiyan family if he weren’t in legal trouble and facing trial for bribery, fraud and violation of trust? Why was he silent for more than three years? As prime minister, wasn’t he shown the Shin Bet’s report, which determined that it was not a terrorist attack?

This may be the first time that Netanyahu has apologized to any Arab citizen. While he will on occasion express regret, he has never before apologized for any incident or statement pertaining to Arab citizens. His electoral base is known for its deep hatred for Arab-Israelis and would take any apology as a sign of weakness.

Abu al-Kiyan’s widow, Amal Abu Saad, told Al-Monitor, “After the apology, we feel a sense of relief, because his reputation was cleared of all the made-up and baseless accusations that they tried to attach to him. Although the apology was late in coming and it is impossible to restore what we lost, this is still a positive step forward, because an apology means admitting a mistake.”

Alsheikh said in a Sept. 8 statement only, “It is not my custom to speak to the families of terrorists who are killed.”

Abu Saad said, “We are glad that the truth came out, because we didn’t have any shadow of a doubt that there was no basis for his claims against the deceased. Former Commissioner Roni Alsheikh behaved abominably, showing no responsibility whatsoever to the deceased and his family. He thinks that we are nothing more than objects without any feelings, and not that we are living, breathing human beings.”

As to whether Netanyahu would have apologized were it not for the trial, she said, “He may have and he may not have. It is possible that the apology was made to benefit him, but he still apologized, at least as far as I am concerned. This will help us do right by the deceased and ensure that the guilty parties face justice.”

Infuriated Arab-Israelis are demanding a committee of inquiry conduct a thorough investigation of the problem of police brutality against the country’s Arab citizens.

One of the most prominent cases of this kind of police violence involved the director of the Mossawa Center for the Rights of Arabs in Israel. Jafar Farah's leg was broken while he was arrested in May 2018. It took a year for Lior Hatam, the officer who attacked him, to be indicted after an investigation. The trial is still in the evidentiary stage.

“The police commissioner released contradictory and false versions of the circumstances to the media,” said Farah. In responding to Netanyahu’s apology, he told Al-Monitor, “The prime minister and his ministers took advantage of every opportunity to incite against the Arabs. Yet now they are whining that law enforcement is attacking them. Families that lost their loved ones to police violence suffer in silence when they see how their loved ones’ blood being exploited for political ends. The Abu al-Kiyan family has suffered the loss of an educator and the destruction of the family home by a criminal government."