It is unprecedented. Three years after the Israeli government first began vilifying a Palestinian teacher to retrospectively justify his murder by Israel’s security forces, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a public apology to his family last week. Yacoub Abu al-Qiyan was not a “terrorist” after all, the Israeli prime minister conceded.
And there was more. Israeli police, said Netanyahu, had portrayed 50-year-old Abu al-Qiyan as “a terrorist to protect themselves” and stop their crimes being exposed.
They shot him even though he posed no threat to anyone. Abu al-Qiyan was unarmed and driving at less than 10 kilometres per hour at the time. After shooting him, police left him to bleed to death for half an hour, denying him medical assistance that could have saved his life.
To cover up their role, police falsely claimed that he had tried to ram them with his car. The Israeli state prosecution service was deeply implicated in this affair, too, having reportedly blocked a criminal investigation, even though they knew what really happened.
Netanyahu said his government had been deceived by the serial lies back in early 2017, implying that that was why he wrongly accused Abu al-Qiyan of committing a “terror attack”.
Hail of gunfire
Such soul-searching and contrition on matters relating to the abuse and killing of a Palestinian are startlingly rare from any Israeli politician. But from Netanyahu, such comments rightly raise an eyebrow. What is going on?
In fact, Netanyahu is telling only partial truths.
Abu al-Qiyan was certainly no terrorist, nor was he a member of the Islamic State (IS), as police repeatedly claimed. He was a school deputy principal and a member of Israel’s large Palestinian minority. That made him – unlike Palestinians in the occupied territories – an Israeli citizen, though one with few of the rights enjoyed by the country’s Jewish majority. Palestinian “citizens” comprise a fifth of Israel’s population.
Bedouin citizens such as Abu al-Qiyan face the most discrimination of all Palestinian communities inside Israel. Nonetheless, he had managed to gain a PhD in chemistry, the first Bedouin to do so in Israel.
And, as Netanyahu correctly observed, Abu al-Qiyan was indeed a victim of extreme police brutality – something all too familiar to Palestinians, whether in the occupied territories or inside Israel.
When his car came under a hail of gunfire, he was hit twice by live rounds. As a result, he lost control of his car, which sped downhill out of control, hitting and killing a police officer. Abu al-Qiyan was then left to bleed to death as police and Israeli medical teams refused to come to his aid.
“Had he received treatment … he would not have died,” concluded Dr Maya Forman, who helped conduct the autopsy. That’s why Ayman Odeh, a Palestinian legislator in the Israeli parliament and the head of the Joint List faction, called Abu al-Qiyan’s killing a police “murder” last week.
Netanyahu was also right that Israeli police lied, both about who Abu al-Qiyan was and the circumstances of his death. But then again, that is standard operating procedure for Israeli security forces when Palestinian civilians die at their hands. Lack of transparency, cover-ups and impunity are givens.
Where Netanyahu was wrong was in suggesting that he was ever deceived by the police claims. He surely knew almost from the start that Abu al-Qiyan was not a terrorist, even while publicly calling him one.
How can we be certain? Because I and many others knew about the police deceptions soon after Abu al-Qiyan was shot and left to die. In February 2017, for example, a month after his death, I wrote an article setting out the lies I had been told by police, which had been rapidly exposed by forensic and video evidence – lies Netanyahu claims only just to have learned about. If I knew the truth three years ago, so did he.
In fact, the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence service, which is directly answerable to the prime minister, concluded within two days that the incident was not a terror attack.
Netanyahu wasn’t tricked. He colluded in the character assassination of Abu al-Qiyan after the Bedouin man’s assassination by police.
The only reason the prime minister decided to break with Israel’s decades-old policy of dissembling to ensure its security services enjoy impunity over the deaths of Palestinians was to help himself out of a jam. It certainly was not because he cared about a glaring injustice, or about Abu al-Qiyan’s vilification and the family’s suffering – both of which he very much contributed to.
Netanyahu’s goal was not to clear Abu al-Qiyan’s name, but to tarnish the reputation of Israel’s police and prosecution service – and for all the wrong reasons. The police force and prosecutors involved in the killing of Abu al-Qiyan, and the cover-up of that crime, are the same police force and prosecution service that will be acting against Netanyahu in December, when his corruption trial begins in earnest.
Netanyahu faces a string of charges that he committed bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His political survival now depends on his ability to breathe life into a narrative that the Israeli police and legal system are themselves corrupt and waging an anti-democratic war to bring him down.
This is the story he is trying to craft: if police and prosecutors could deceive even Israel’s prime minister for three years over the killing of an Israeli citizen, are they not also capable of deceiving the public by accusing Netanyahu himself of being corrupt?
Should Netanyahu succeed, he will demand that all corruption charges against him are dropped. Another Palestinian legislator, Aida Touma-Suleiman, tweeted that Netanyahu’s apology was worthless, calling it the “cynical use of blood for ominous political purposes”.
Netanyahu has been helped, of course, by the fact that, though his claims of a supposed establishment campaign against him are preposterous, he is not wrong about the profound corruption and anti-democratic nature of Israel’s law enforcement and prosecution system.
They are indeed corrupt – just not not against him.
But when it comes to the treatment of Palestinians, whether those in the occupied territories or inside Israel, Israeli security services have trigger-happy fingers and contempt for Palestinian lives. Investigations rarely take place, and when they do, their findings are preordained. Prosecutors willingly turn a blind eye to police misdeeds, hastily closing such files, as they did with Abu al-Qiyan.The Truth Behind Netanyahu’s Admission that Police Killing was a Cover-up