The quiet street where 15-year-old Tariq Abu Khdeir lives is nestled behind twists and turns on small roads. The Tampa, Florida townhouse where the Palestinian-American rests his head looks like all the other homes on his block. The high school Tariq attends is a quick drive away.
It is a typical American suburban setting, with his mom raising her young children and his father working in a restaurant an hour away. And it couldn’t be more different than the chaos that enveloped Tariq and his family after his cousin, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped and burned alive by a group of Israeli Jews in July. Israeli police beat Tariq, who was in Jerusalem on a family vacation, to a pulp during the protests that took place in response to the kidnapping.
Tariq, tall and soft-spoken, is now safe and sound. His face, badly distorted by the beating delivered by two Israeli officers, is back to normal, though his mother says he still suffers from occasional headaches. But his life has been topsy-turvy ever since his cousin was killed, and he is far from an escape back into total normality. His legal team is looking into their options, hoping for accountability from the Israeli system. And he has been whisked around the U.S. to demonstrations and to talk about his ordeal and spread the word about human rights abuses in Palestine. Many more protests and events are in Tariq’s future.
Tariq says it’s tiring to continually talk about what happened to him. But, he added, “at the same time, you think about it, it’s like you’re helping people, you’re helping your own people.” And despite his ordeal, Tariq wants to go back to Palestine to see his family and celebrate events like weddings.
“I want to let them know that you can’t just beat a Palestinian-American and expect them not to come back to their family,” Tariq insisted as we sat on his couch, drinking coffee and tea and eating cheese sandwiches on pita bread his mother had made. “When you beat someone first, and they’re visiting the place too, it kind of makes them think, it makes the person think about what they’re doing, how it is over there.”
July 2nd was the day that changed the Abu Khdeir family’s life. It was Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that people fast for, so Tariq and Mohammed–Tariq’s first friend in Palestine–were up early in the morning. “He was my friend, he used to take me out a lot,” Tariq told me.
They went to the mosque near the family’s home in Shuafat, a middle-class Jerusalem neighborhood not known for being a hot spot in a city full of them. At one point, Tariq walked off to the bakery to get some food for the early-morning Ramadan meal. When he returned five minutes later, Mohammed was gone.
Family members came out after Mohammed went missing, asking the Israeli police who arrived to do something. Instead, Tariq says, the police taunted them and called the military to come, who fired rubber bullets and a sound grenade in the area. A few hours later, the charred body of Mohammed was found in the Jerusalem Forest, about seven miles from Shuafat. It later emerged that the culprits were a group of six Israeli Jewish extremists who had stalked the streets of Jerusalem to murder a Palestinian as a response to the murder of three Israeli teens. The cataclysmic events kindled the fire that lead to Israel’s devastating assault on Gaza.
Shuafat erupted in the hours and days following the discovery of Mohammed’s body. Hundreds of young Palestinians took to the streets. Israeli police fired tear-gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, turning the quiet neighborhood into a raging battle zone for the day. Tariq had never seen anything like it. It was his first time back to Palestine in nine years.
“I did see a lot of people throw rocks. But it was really sad because I was just seeing a bunch of people getting shot,” Tariq said.
On July 3, Tariq was outside watching the protests convulsing Shuafat. When rubber bullets started to fly near him, he took off. But two undercover Israeli agents wearing masks apprehended him, and beat and kicked him senselessly while he was zip-tied. The assault on Tariq was caught on tape, and the shocking images of his swollen face, along with the fact of his American citizenship and who his cousin was, fueled the spreading outrage and media attention to his case. U.S. officials intervened after media outlets beamed his face around the world.
He woke up blindfolded and shackled in al-Maskobiya prison, a notorious compound in the holy city. He was interrogated twice about his role in the protests. It took six hours of prodding by his father to get the police to take him to a hospital.
“I couldn’t get near him, or touch him or speak to him or anything, and he was handcuffed to the hospital bed,” said Suha Abu Khdeir, his mother. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw him. His face was totally distorted, It was going off to the side. It was really hard for me.”
The Israeli police story was that Tariq was among a group of youths who attacked the police with petrol bombs, Molotov cocktails and stones. No evidence ever emerged to prove that, and an eyewitness to the attack told Mondoweiss it was untrue. He was eventually placed under house arrest for nine days, but was not charged with anything.
The whole experience has been deeply traumatizing–and not just for Tariq. His five-year-old sister rushed up to me before I sat down with Suha and Tariq, and narrated the whole story of how “the war” came to Palestine while she was there.
Since being released from jail and house arrest, Tariq has turned into something of a celebrity for the Palestinian cause. He has met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He has narrated his story to White House and State Department officials and delivered a briefing to Congressional staff members and Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN). He has also traveled to Texas to tell his story to organizations and to New York for media interviews.
His lawyer Hassan Shibly–also the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida–continues to work on the case. “There’s a lot of work to be done on this. We’re exploring all legal options in U.S. courts, international courts and Israeli courts to ensure that no one ever goes through what Tariq went through again–to bring those people to justice,” Shibly said, though the family acknowledges the chances of real accountability are slim.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the men of the Abu Khdeir family continue to be picked up by the Israeli police, who ransacked the family home in Shuafat the night Tariq and his mother left. Three of Tariq’s young cousins remain in jail, as does another Palestinian-American named Mohamed Abu Nie picked up during protests in Jerusalem.
But the repression throughout Palestine has politicized Tariq and his mother, especially since the family recently discovered they had relatives in Gaza.
“We’re going to continue to do what we’re doing, which is spreading the word of what’s going on in Palestine, and how the Palestinians are being mistreated,” said Suha Abu Khdeir. “I feel like we’re the only voice right now for the Palestinians, the only hope that they have, because nobody seems to care.”