Florida teen beaten by Israeli police heads back to U.S.

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

The swelling on his face has gone down, but Tariq Khdeir’s wrists still bear the marks of plastic handcuffs pulled tight as an Israeli border police officer beat him senseless earlier this month as he lay on the ground after being seized during violent Palestinian protests in East Jerusalem.

The incident July 3 was caught on video, and the 15-year-old Palestinian-American teenager from Tampa, Fla., who was on a summer visit with his parents to visit relatives, became an international media sensation.

Images of his disfigured face and of the police officer repeatedly punching and kicking him in the head as another officer held him down went viral on the Internet. The State Department said it was “deeply troubled” and demanded an investigation, President Barack Obama brought up the matter with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with the teen.

The Israeli Justice Ministry said later that the officer suspected of beating Tariq had been suspended for 15 days and might face criminal charges.

Now Tariq is returning to the United States _ he was scheduled to be on board a flight that left Israel late Tuesday _ with no charges pending against him. He was detained after the beating incident _ the Justice Ministry said he’d been “allegedly identified by the police as taking an active part in the riots, while masked and carrying a slingshot” _ and held until an Israeli judge ordered him released to nine days of house arrest.

“If they have any evidence against him, let them lock him up,” his father, Salahedeen Khdeir, said in an interview.

How the Israeli government plans to pursue the case against the officer isn’t clear. Tariq’s family has filed its own complaint accusing the officer of assault, the father said.

Tariq, his parents and two sisters had come to the Shuafat neighborhood in East Jerusalem in June to visit relatives and travel around the country, a summer homeland visit that’s common among Palestinian-Americans.

They went to the seaside town of Jaffa, a mixed Jewish-Arab community that’s part of Tel Aviv, where they enjoyed dinner at a popular fish restaurant. They traveled to Jericho and the Dead Sea.

In the evenings, Tariq would go out with his 16-year-old cousin, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, to neighborhood weddings of relatives and friends, where, he recalled, Muhammad excelled at traditional “debka” dancing.

There were plans to travel north and go fishing at the ancient coastal city of Akko, to visit the Israeli-held Golan Heights and the town of Tiberias, on the biblical Sea of Galilee.

“I was happy to see relatives, to see the land,” Tariq recalled.

But what had been a quiet summer vacation ended when Muhammad was kidnapped and burned to death by Jewish assailants avenging the abduction and slaying of three Israeli teenagers last month in the West Bank.

Usually calm Shuafat exploded with anger.

Masked youths took to the streets, hurling stones at Israeli border police officers and wrecking the stations of an Israeli light-rail line running through the neighborhood. The area was swathed in clouds of tear gas, and the booms of stun grenades and anti-riot rounds fired by police echoed among the houses.

Tariq, a fishing enthusiast who plays basketball and soccer at his Islamic school in Tampa, the Universal Academy of Florida, found himself in the middle of a neighborhood riot.

He said he’d gone outside to watch the confrontations, wearing a red-checked Arab head scarf that he wrapped around his face against the tear gas.

When police officers chased him, he tried to run away but fell as he attempted to jump over a fence, he recalled later in interviews. Video images show the officers pinning him to the ground, then pummeling him with kicks and punches before his limp form is carried away.

Tariq's father, who moved to the U.S. 17 years ago, runs a hummus and falafel restaurant in Tampa that he says is frequented by Israelis and members of the local Jewish community. Tampa also is home to a substantial community of Palestinians originally from Shuafat, he said.

In contrast to the seething Arab-Jewish tensions in East Jerusalem, things in Tampa are different, the father said.

“There is respect and no prejudice or racism between the Jews and Arabs, and we’re close to each other,” he said.

Despite the traumatic events of the past two weeks, Tariq said he was eager to return for another visit. “I love it here,” he said. “It feels like home.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: jgreenberg@mcclatchydc.com

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