US demands Israeli release of American teen

Israel’s continued detention of teenager is raising US awareness of the plight of Palestinians.

Florida teenager Tariq Abu Khdeir was recently released after being detained by Israeli police [Reuters]
Florida teenager Tariq Abu Khdeir was recently released after being detained by Israeli police [Reuters]

Washington, DC, United States – The US State Department continues to demand the immediate release by Israeli authorities of a Palestinian-American boy arrested with other teenagers during a protest in East Jerusalem last month.

Mohammed Abu Nie, 15, faces charges of rock-throwing, attacking police, carrying a knife and leading a demonstration and has been held since July 3. American consular officials in Tel Aviv met with him as recently as July 31.

The State Department has also raised concerns about his treatment while in custody.

“We are calling for a speedy resolution to this case,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said, adding the US government was “gravely concerned over the prolonged detention of this US citizen child”.

Rights advocates say the case is typical of Israeli mistreatment for decades of Arabs both within Israel and the occupied territories. What’s new is that the stories of Abu Nie and other Palestinian-Americans are creating an opportunity to educate US lawmakers long accustomed to hearing only Israeli accounts of the troubles in Palestine.

“Ordinary Israeli officials – policemen, army people – they make a point of insulting you, insulting your US passport, throwing it on the ground, telling you: ‘It means nothing to us. You are just a Palestinian and we don’t care one wit that you have a US passport.’ In a vulgar, childish manner, they disrespect the US passport of Palestinians,” said Jonathan Kuttab, an international human rights lawyer based in Washington who has represented many Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans in Israeli courts.

Keith Ellison is a four-term Democrat from Minnesota and one of the few US lawmakers in the past month that has been a voice in Washington for Palestinians, calling for an end to the Israeli siege of Gaza.

Many congressmen just don’t know, the truth is we have to educate people,” Ellison told Al Jazeera. “You have got to expose people to another point of view. There has got to be a more strenuous and comprehensive effort to tell the Palestinian side on Capitol Hill.”

Stone’s throw away from prison

Abu Nie was among 11 Palestinian minors arrested on July 3 for allegedly throwing stones during a protest after the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian who was kidnapped and burned to death at the hands of Israelis following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens.

US teenager freed on bail by Israeli court

Tariq Abu Khdeir – a 15-year-old Palestinian-American from Tampa, Florida, and a cousin of Mohammed who was visiting family in Gaza for summer vacation – was also arrested the same day. A video clip circulated on the Internet allegedly showed two Israeli border police holding down and repeatedly pummeling the youth before carrying him away. 

A few weeks later, Khdeir stood up in a small forum in the US Congress to tell his story. In the halls of Congress, it was a rare personal account of the systematic discrimination and abuse suffered by Palestinian civilians, activists say.

“What I have been through is just a small taste of what they all go through,” Khdeir said. “The Palestinian people don’t have rights. When I travelled over there I actually forgot that I had freedom.”

After the kidnapping and death of his cousin Mohammed, Israeli police taunted Palestinians who had gathered, and shouted things such as “we killed one Palestinian child, we’re going to kill 300 more”, according to Hassan Shibly, a lawyer for Khdeir. As the crowd grew and protesters threw stones, Israeli police began firing rubber bullets.

Khdeir watched the commotion and clashes during the protests with Israeli authorities from an alleyway near his home. Panicked people ran towards him chased by soldiers, so he turned and ran too.

Hopping over a low wall, he stumbled, kept running and was tackled by Israeli policemen who slammed him to the ground. The police zip-tied his hands behind his back, and kicked his face and kidneys until he blacked out. They dragged his limp body away and threw him in jail for four days.

Pro-Israeli stance

Support inside the US Congress has been overwhelmingly pro-Israeli during the latest war in Gaza, notwithstanding widespread international condemnation of Israel’s bombing of UN schools used as shelters.

One bill in Congress is the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, which would deepen US support for Israel. The legislation is a top priority for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israeli lobbying group in the US. It overwhelmingly passed in the lower chamber – the House of Representatives – by a 410-to-1 vote in March.

Before taking a month-long August recess, Congress approved $225m in emergency funds for Israel’s military operations, including its “Iron Dome” missile defense system. The Iron Dome emergency funding was approved 395-8 in the House and unanimously in the Senate.

“It has been a deeply concerning and one-sided debate on Gaza,” Mike Coogan, director of development for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told Al Jazeera. “A case study like Abu Khdeir really helps us, especially with American citizens. We had essentially gotten nowhere for years. Once we started talking about discrimination against American citizens, there was a huge controversy on the Hill.”

‘Finger in the eye’

Still, only a handful of lawmakers in Congress can be found concerned about the plight of the Palestinians or disapproving of the unqualified US military and financial support for Israel, voting records show.  

We are assembling an international legal team to explore all the legal options on the table to ensure that no child faces the brutal treatment that Tariq got.

- Hassan Shibly, Council on American-Islamic Relations

“How many times can you keep sticking your finger in the eye of the people of Palestine?” said Walter B Jones, Jr, a North Carolina Republican, who was among eight House members who voted “no” to the Iron Dome funding.

One reason why more members of Congress are not vocal about their concerns regarding Israeli tactics in Gaza is the financial power of AIPAC, Jones said. “This place operates on fundraising. Some of the major players in fundraising are with AIPAC.”

During his recent primary contest in North Carolina, Jones was targeted by a pro-Israel political action committee organised by neo-conservative and well-known US Republican commentator Bill Kristol.

“They ran ads against me in my primary showing a Middle Eastern person burning an Israeli flag and an American flag. They said I was against Israel. I am not against Israel,” Jones said

Meanwhile, US lawyers for Khdeir plan legal action. “We are assembling an international legal team to explore all the legal options on the table to ensure that no child faces the brutal treatment that Tariq got,” Shibly, a Council on American-Islamic Relations lawyer in Tampa, told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera contacted the Israeli Embassy in Washington but it refused to comment on the matter.

Abu Khdeir‘s family met with senior US State Department officials in Washington to lodge a complaint. “They all know the abuse that takes place but it doesn’t translate into the public dialogue,” Shibly said.

State Department spokeswoman Harf declined to comment on the meeting, citing privacy, but said officials were concerned about reports of abuse.

Editor’s note: This story has been amended to remove a sentence claiming that C-SPAN switched from a broadcast of Khdeir’s testimony to Senator Barbara Boxer’s endorsement of the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act. It is C-SPAN policy to change to a live broadcast of a US lawmaker regardless of the circumstance.

Source: Al Jazeera

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