An investigative team led by Forensic Architecture and Activestills proves, through a reenactment and visual analyses of footage of the incident, that the deaths of a Bedouin teacher and an Israeli policeman in Umm al-Hiran in January were not the result of a car-ramming attack.
By Yael Marom
The results of a police investigation into the January 18 events in Umm al-Hiran, during which — prior to a slate of home demolitions — a Bedouin man who was shot by police ran over and killed an Israeli policeman before succumbing to his wounds, have yet to be published. But it’s already clear that every detail the Israel Police tried to pass off to the public and the media was incorrect.
The reconstruction also proves that Abu al-Qi’an was still alive after his car had stopped, as the autopsy findings showed. He even opened his car door before falling out of the vehicle. An eyewitness testified to investigators that he saw a police officer pointing his gun at Abu al-Qi’an while the latter was still alive, strengthening the claim that the already-injured Abu al-Qi’an was shot again after his car had stopped and he did not pose a threat to anyone.Forensic Architecture, in partnership with Activestills, has now managed to put together a reconstruction of what happened in Umm al-Hiran that day. Their work proves that contrary to police claims, Yaqub Mousa Abu al-Qi’an did not intentionally accelerate his car, but rather it picked up speed and went down the slope only after police had opened fire and hit Abu al-Qi’an’s right leg. As a result, his car struck and killed police officer Erez Levi.
Recapped below, in chronological order, is the string of claims the police made following the incident, each of which has been debunked.
The initial version of events the Israel Police released to the media claimed that a police officer had been killed in a “car-ramming attack,” and that the “terrorist” responsible — who allegedly intentionally drove at speed with no headlights on — had been shot. It was also hinted that he had ties to the Islamic State group. However, that same day it transpired that the police story omitted an important detail — police opened fire on the car before it had struck Levi.
In response, the police changed their story, claiming that they had fired their weapons, but only into the air. A visual investigation by FA and Activestills, first published by +972 Magazine the day after the incident, debunked that claim as well. The analysis showed that police had shot at the car, and not in the air — and that the vehicle had in fact been moving slowly at the time they opened fire.
The following day, January 20, Israel’s Channel 10 reported that the results of the autopsy on Abu al-Qi’an showed that he had initially been shot in the knee of his right leg — which he was using to control the pedals — and that another bullet hit him in the chest. It also revealed that Abu al-Qi’an died from blood loss, and that the police had prevented him from receiving medical treatment or being evacuated for several hours.
The attempts by Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh and Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan to link Abu al-Qi’an, a teacher, to the Islamic State Group also unraveled. They had based their claims on three copies of the freesheet Israel Hayom that were in Abu al-Qi’an’s home, which featured an article about an IS terror attack. The same edition of Israel Hayom, as it happens, also contained an article about matriculation in mathematics, the subject that Abu al-Qi’an taught.
A further FA investigation overturned the police claim that Abu al-Qi’an had been driving without his headlights on: he had indeed switched them on, and it was possible to see the car as it drove into the village.
What the reenactment reveals
Five days after the Police Investigation Unit put together a reconstruction of the events in Umm al-Hiran, a team of investigators, lecturers and students from FA, together with members of Activestills, arrived in the village in order to stage their own reconstruction of the incident.
The team also invited witnesses to the event to attend, including residents of Umm al-Hiran, activists, and Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh — whose injury that morning from a sponge-tipped bullet police tried to claim had been caused by stone-throwers. A group from Local Call also joined the team.
The new film of the reconstruction, published for the first time on Wednesday, contradicts the police version of events in which Abu al-Qi’an “stepped on the gas” and sped up in order to hit the police officers. Rather, as a result of being shot in the knee Abu al-Qi’an was unable to keep pressing down on the pedal and the vehicle kept moving slowly, only picking up speed when it rolled down the hill, eventually hitting and killing Erez Levi.
The team also examined what would have happened had Abu al-Qi’an’s foot released the brake after he was shot in the knee. Participants in the reenactment — wearing blue caps in the video — stood exactly where the Israeli officers could be seen in the aerial footage released by the police. A white Toyota Land Cruiser, almost the same as the one driven by Abu al-Qi’an that morning, was driven at a similar speed for the reenactment. The driver took his foot off the brake pedal at the exact same moment at which Abu al-Qi’an was shot in the knee.
The visual comparison between the police footage and the reenactment shows that releasing the brakes, which had been dictating the speed of the vehicle until Abu al-Qi’an was hit, was what caused the car to speed up as it rolled down the hill, and not the driver pressing the gas pedal. Had Abu al-Qi’an intentionally accelerated in order to run someone over, the car would have been moving a lot faster.
Both the 2015 Toyota Land Cruiser driven by Abu al-Qi’an and the 2016 model used in the reconstruction have a safety mechanism, wherein the doors automatically lock once the vehicle is traveling at over 12mph. At this point, it is only possible to open the car doors from the inside, even once the car has stopped.
This feature is emphasized in the reenactment film: when the car reaches around 12mph, the automatic locking mechanism can be heard. The car stops and the driver’s door can only be opened from the inside. At this point in the police helicopter footage, police officers can be seen approaching the halted car, and the door opens. Because the car doors could not be opened from the outside, and because pictures of the car following the incident show the windshield was still intact, it can only be inferred that Abu al-Qi’an was the one who opened the door — and, as such, that he was still alive at the time.
The first investigation by FA synchronized the sound from footage of the incident recorded by Activestills’ Keren Manor, who was in Umm al-Hiran that morning, with the police helicopter footage that was released to the media. One of the disturbing findings which emerged was that after the car had come to a stop and had been surrounded by police, a further single bullet was fired at the vehicle, even though it clearly no longer posed a threat.
A further police helicopter video of the incident features the subtitle “police block off the vehicle and neutralize the terrorist” — suggesting that we are, in fact, seeing footage of a killing.
Contrary to the Police Investigation Unit’s reenactment, the reconstruction by FA and Activestills was undertaken with the input of civilian witnesses to the event. There were few witnesses to the shooting itself; one of them, village committee head Raed Abu al-Qi’an, was filmed by the investigative team reenacting what he saw once the car had stopped.
“What I saw is that the driver’s door, I’m not sure who opened it, was opened. And then someone had his weapon pointed at it, I don’t know if the shot came from him or from someone further up. But after that we heard the shout, ‘I’m done with the terrorist!’”
There’s one thing that FA’s visual investigation doesn’t put across: how close the house of Yaqub Abu al-Qi’an, from which he set out that night and which was demolished later that morning, is to the scene of his initial shooting. They are a few dozen meters apart, and one needs to actually be there to understand the dimensions involved. Even I, having visited the village in the past, was stunned when I found out how close Abu al-Qi’an was to his home when he was shot — and how illogical the tale the police told the public was.
When will police investigators release their findings?
Ariel Caine, one of the investigators with FA, said that a civilian investigation of this kind is “necessary when there is a lack of faith in the justice system, or when there is a suspicion of injustice at the hands of the system itself.
“These investigations are generally carried out on behalf of the most oppressed populations, and against state institutions such as the army or the police, when those institutions are not prepared to or capable of investigating themselves,” Caine continued. Indeed, this collaboration between civil society organizations, FA, Activestills and residents of Umm al-Hiran has already managed to undermine the various claims about the events on January 18 made by police.
MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, said in response to the latest findings that “the web of lies and incitement from the government and the police has unraveled, and everything we’ve been claiming from the start has been verified as the truth.
“Gilad Erdan and Roni Alsheikh are responsible for the deaths of Yaqub Abu al-Qi’an and Erez Levi,” Odeh continued. “But instead of taking responsibility, the whitewashing continues, and despite four months having passed since that terrible morning, the Police Investigation Unit has not seen fit to open an official inquiry.
“The only justice we can offer to the Abu al-Qi’an family is to expose the truth, recognize the village of Umm al-Hiran and for its residents to remain on their land, and we will continue to fight for this,” Odeh added.
In response to a query about when the Police Investigation Unit’s findings would be published, a Justice Ministry spokesperson said: “Every aspect of the file is being examined and it is in the final stages of assessment, including consultations with experts. At this stage, with the assessment ongoing, we cannot address details of the investigation and its findings.”
The Israel Police had no trouble in declaring, within hours, that the events in Umm al-Hiran that morning were the work of an Islamic State terrorist who had intentionally rammed into a police officer, yet the body investigating the police is taking its time.
Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh have been applying pressure to try and prevent the findings from the police investigation being published. Nearly four months after the events in question, and after all the lies have been exposed, it appears that the Police Investigation Unit has capitulated to their wishes.
Yael Marom is Just Vision’s public engagement manager in Israel and a co-editor of Local Call, where this article is also published in Hebrew.