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Um al-Hiran: Another Israeli propaganda campaign gone wrong

Israeli police were quick to portray an Israeli-Palestinian they killed as an IS-linked 'terrorist'. With the truth out, it's the police under fire

The following is the official statement released by the Israeli police at 6.50am on 18 January, an hour after two Israeli citizens – Yacoub Abu al-Qiyan, a local resident and high school teacher and Erez Levi, a police sergeant - were killed during the demolition of houses in the Bedouin village of Um al-Hiran in southern Israel: 

"Security forces arrived this morning at Um al-Hiran on [a] law enforcement mission. As they arrived, a vehicle owned by a terrorist, a local resident and a member of the Islamic Movement, speeded towards the warriors with the intention to perform a running-over terror attack. The terrorist was neutralised…The terrorist is an activist of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement and his ties with Daesh (Islamic State) are being investigated…The Israeli police is calling upon the Bedouin community to vomit out seeds of extremist ideologies whose sole scope is terror. The terrorist (Abu Al-Qiyan) works in the education system where his negative influence is ten times more dangerous."

The 50-year-old had been prosecuted and found guilty of being a terrorist, possibly a member of IS, and a teacher who abused his power to propagate extremism

Less than two hours after al-Qiyan's death, the police narrative left no room for doubt or need for further investigation: the 50-year-old had been prosecuted and found guilty of being a terrorist, possibly a member of Islamic State, and a teacher who abused his power to propagate his extremist ideology.   

False narrative

This harsh verdict against al-Qiyan was quickly and generally adopted - first and foremost by the chief of Israeli police, Roni Alsheikh, who reminded the audience at Levi's funeral that al-Qiyan was a teacher in a school where six teachers had already been arrested after "preferring to teach Daesh ideology".

After the incident, the police found old copies of Israel Today, a fiercely pro-governmental newspaper financed by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's personal friend Sheldon Adelson, in Abu al-Qiyan's home and presented them as proof of his alignment with IS, because they contained stories about attacks involving the group.   

Palestinians protesting against house demolitions on 13 January (MEE)

Internal security minister Gil'ad Erdan from the governing Likud party went even further and put the blame for the al-Qiyan "terror attack" on Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List party who came to show his solidarity with the people of Um al-Hiran. Most, if not all, of Israeli mainstream media followed suit and described the Um al-Hiran incident as a terror attack. Israel's propaganda machine seemed to work perfectly. 

Flames of propaganda

The same propaganda machine was at play two months earlier when a wave of fires engulfed Israel. Ergan and other state officials, including Netanyahu himself, pointed the finger of blame at Palestinians, describing the fires as premeditated and coordinated "terrorist" arson attacks.

In the first few days, mainstream media cooperated with this storyline and the Ynet news site, the most popular in Israel, ran a logo with the words "Intifada of Fires" against a fire-red background. 

The aim of these concerted propaganda campaigns was rather clear: to portray the Palestinian minority in Israel as an "enemy from within". It was a strategy that had worked quite well for Netanyahu when he warned his supporters, in a video message aired right in the middle of the last election day, that the Arabs were "heading to polling stations in droves". It is arguable whether this alarming message won him the election, but it certainly did not harm him.

The police findings seemed to verify that the policemen open fired on Abu Al-Qiyan's car before it sped up and before it posed any threat to them

But eventually, neither the fire, nor the Um al-Hiran campaigns worked out very well. More than two months after the wave of fires, not a single Palestinian of Israeli citizenship has been indicted for arson, and although some officials and right-wing journalists still maintain that the fires were not accidental, most media now regard the claim that they were part of a terror attack as false. The seeds of incitement, planted by Erdan and others, did not bring about the hoped for result. 

As for Abu al-Qiyan, the change of approach is even more dramatic. The Police Investigative Unit (PIU) findings, still not published officially but leaked to the press earlier this week, seem to verify what Abu Al-Qiyan's family, neighbours and scores of Israeli activists, Arabs and Jews, claimed from the very start: that the policemen open fired on Abu Al-Qiyan's car before it sped up and before it posed any threat to them, that he did not have any intention to run down policemen and that he had no connection to any "terrorist" organisation, IS or otherwise.

Police accused

Instead of Abu al-Qiyan, it is now the police who are being accused of falsifying evidence about what happened at Um al-Hiran - or of even intentionally lying to the press. It's not only alternative media outlets such as +972 Magazine or Activestills - which played an important role in disclosing the real chain of events - that are accusing the police, but also mainstream media outlets.

Instead of Abu al-Qiyan, it is now the police who are being accused of falsifying evidence about what happened at Um al-Hiran - or of even intentionally lying to the press

Even well-known right-wing pundits voluntarily apologised to Abu al-Qiyan's family for falsely accusing him of terrorism. Calls for Erdan and Alshiekh to apologise or even to resign have been published all over the press. They say that they "are waiting" for the final conclusions of PIU investigations, but it is not impossible that they will have to pay some price.   

An injured protester is held on the ground in Umm al-Hiran (Reuters)

Thabet Abu Ras, who is deeply involved in struggles for Bedouin rights in Israel and is co-head of the Abraham Fund, an NGO which promotes better relations between Israel's Jewish and Palestinian citizens, is not surprised about what the police did in Um al-Hiran. Police officers, he claims, were involved in the negotiations concerning the fate of the village, whose residents were settled there by the Israeli government 60 years ago after they were evicted from their original village. 

According to Abu Ras, those police officers were the ones who refused to sign on to a settlement, agreed upon by the local residents and other civilian government officials, which would have allowed for the people of Um al-Hiran to build a new village not far away from the existing site.

The police, claims Abu Ras, preferred forceful demolitions to a peaceful settlement because it would have set "a bad example" for other cases where demolition orders were issued against Bedouin residents. Al-Qiyan, Abu Ras reminds us, is the fourth Bedouin killed by the police in the last two years. No action was taken against policemen in any of these cases. It seems that al-Qiyan's killing will go unpunished, too. 

Solidarity protests

Despite this bleak picture, some lessons can be learned from Abu al-Qiyan's story. The Bedouin community in Israel, and the Palestinian community as a whole, managed to force public opinion in Israel to change - not an easy achievement given how far to the right Israel has moved.

More than 5,000 protesters participated in a demonstration in Tel Aviv, one the largest solidarity rallies held in recent years with the Palestinian minority

The events in Um al-Hiran, which came only a few days after the demolition of 11 houses in the Palestinian village of Qalanswe in central Israel, triggered a large demonstration by the Palestinian minority, one unparalleled in size for many years.

Palestinian Israelis and Jews demonstrate on Saturday night against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's home demolition policy, in Tel Aviv (AFP)

They also engaged many parts of Jewish society. Dozens of Jewish activists were present during the demolitions in Um al-Hiran and their documentation of what happened helped crack the police version of the events. More than 5,000 protesters participated in a demonstration in Tel Aviv, one the largest solidarity rallies held in recent years with the Palestinian minority. The combination of both, with the help of the more progressive parts in the Israeli press, helped block the onslaught of Erdan, Netanyahu and their likes. 

This does not mean that the threats over the Palestinian minority in Israel are over. The delegitimisation of its political leadership is still one of the current government's main goals. House demolitions are used as a punitive tool against Palestinians all over Israel. The government still refuses to recognise Bedouins rights to live in the lands of their forefathers.

But in Um al-Hiran, as well as in the case of the wave of fires, the Palestinian minority has shown its ability to lead an effective civil struggle, a more "proactive" one, as Abu Ras defines it. The way in which the false accusations against Abu al-Qiyan collapsed may prove that such a struggle puts more challenges before Israel's right-wing government. 

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for an inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the news department at Haaretz, and now an independent journalist.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Palestinians mourn at the funeral of Yacoub Abu al-Qiyan who was shot dead by Israeli police on 18 January (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.