As the debate about excessive police force against unarmed civilians rages throughout the U.S., the Obama administration is involving itself again in the case of an American teen severely beaten by members of the police force of Israel, a U.S. ally with whom there already exist increased tension.
CNN has learned that White House National Security Council staffers recently took the unusual step of meeting in the West Wing with Tariq Khdeir, the Tampa teenager of Palestinian descent beaten unconscious by Israeli police last summer during a protest in East Jerusalem. According to cell phone video, after Tariq was in custody and lying on the ground, clearly not resisting arrest, an Israeli police officer kicked and punched him in the head and upper body.
“The U.S. government has remained closely engaged with Tariq and his family since his return from Jerusalem,” a White House official confirms to CNN. “As part of the follow-up on pending issues related to his case, National Security Council staff met with the Abu Khdeirs recently.”
The meeting, which took place April 15, came as Tariq and his family preparing to return this summer to visit other relatives in the Shuafat neighborhood of Jerusalem; they sought assurances from the White House that there would be no Israeli retaliation against Tariq, who is now 16. Tariq said he had been watching but not participating in the protests. In January the Israeli government confirmed that there would be no charges against Tariq.
Tariq’s mother Suha told CNN that Tariq “has changed” and may now have PTSD because of the beating, which was captured on cell phone video.
White House officials “said when we get there they can only tell them (the Israelis) what they can from here and once we get there they don’t know,” Suha Khdeir told CNN. “I’m hoping that they can do something to help us as far as we don’t endure any difficulties on our travels when we get there.” White House officials, she said “didn’t guarantee anything.”
News of the meeting comes at a diplomatic low point between the Obama administration and the government of newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over myriad issues ranging from the Gaza war last summer to Israeli settlements in the West Bank to the Obama administration’s push for a nuclear deal with Iran to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress opposing the proposed deal. Israeli government officials declined to comment on the record about the Khdeirs’ return to the region.
Behind the scenes, Obama administration officials continually voice frustration if not anger at incidents involving Israeli police or soldiers using force against U.S. citizens such as Tariq.
“We are working with the Israeli authorities and expect to receive a meaningful answer from the investigation into the American citizen’s death in Silwad in October,” a senior administration official told CNN, referring to Orwa Hammad, 14, a Palestinian American killed by Israeli Defense Forces on Oct. 24. The IDF said that Hammad was preparing to throw a Molotov cocktail onto a road.
The senior administration official said the White House was “concerned also by the arrest and detention of several American citizen minors in recent months, including most recently Abdallah Abdo in Jerusalem who told us he had been severely beaten while in police custody, as was American citizen Tariq Khdeir in July. Our consular team observed injuries on Mr. Abdo that appear consistent with his version of events. If accurate, we strongly condemn such excessive use of force.”
The senior administration official added, pointedly, “whenever an American citizen is harmed, we expect full, transparent and credible investigations and – if necessary - accountability.”
Based on numerous conversations with administration officials on background, there is a widespread belief within the Obama administration that the Israeli government does not take these incidents against American citizens with the seriousness U.S. officials believe they merit. Unless there is video evidence that excessive force was used, as in the case of Tariq Khdeir, Israeli government officials inevitably conclude that the action taken was justified and in keeping with national security needs, officials say.
In their West Wing meeting with the Obama administration officials, the Khdeir family also requested that White House officials continue to pressure the Israeli government to bring justice against the Israeli police officers caught on cell phone video brutally assaulting Tariq. In September, the Israeli Justice Ministry found evidence against one police officer, and he was charged with assaulting a minor. The Khdeir family wants charges against all three officers involved.
“I hope everyone, every officer that took part in my beating is taken to justice,” Tariq said at a press conference in Florida last fall.
Suha Khdeir told CNN that Tariq has “some anger issues” from the severe beating he survived last summer. “He keeps repeating what happened to him … I’m almost positive he has PTSD.” She said “we’re not the same as a family.”
Tariq and Suha were accompanied at the White House meeting by Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – Florida.
In addition to urging the Obama administration to pressure the Israelis to protect the Kdheirs when they return to Jerusalem this summer, Shibly underlined that the family thanked the White House for the instrumental role it played in getting Tariq released from Israeli police custody last summer in an expedited manner.
It was almost a year ago that Tariq Khdeir was arrested during protests that followed the murder of his cousin Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, who was killed after three Israeli teens were kidnapped then killed in the West Bank. The abductions and murders of Naftali Fraenkel,16, Gilad Shaer, 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, played a role in the Gaza War last Summer. In January, Hussam Qawasmeh, a member of Hamas, was sentenced to three life sentences for his role in the murders of the Israeli teens.
CAIR and the Khdeir family are also exploring the notion of a civil case against the Israeli police, said Laila Abdelaziz, government affairs director for CAIR Florida.