TAMPA — His fat lip has slowly deflated back to normal size and his black eyes have been replaced with dark circles, yet 15-year-old Tariq Abu Khdeir still carries a visible reminder of his altercation with Israeli police earlier this month that shook the nation — scars where his wrists were bound.
The Palestinian-American teen was arrested and beaten by Israeli authorities during his family's summer vacation to visit relatives in Israel. Tariq's cousin, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was abducted by Israeli extremists and burned alive in retribution for the abduction and slaying of three Israeli teens last month.
A video of Tariq's beating went viral after it was posted to the internet. Since then, his bruised face has circulated nearly every major news outlet, violence has escalated in the Gaza Strip, and the Tampa teen has become a symbol of the dangers facing teens in the region.
But for Tariq, the beating was senseless, meaningless and just the source of the headaches that still plague him Sunday night after family prayers safe in his home, he said.
“I don't remember much, but I do remember I was watching the protests when I saw people running, and then I saw soldiers running toward me,” Khdeir said. “I followed a group of people that jumped the fence, but when I jumped the fence I fell. Then they grabbed me and tied my hands and kept beating me and I just started screaming from the pain. Then I went unconscious.”
The next thing he remembers is waking up blindfolded and surrounded by police and the indistinguishable din of voices speaking foreign languages. At the urging of his father, Salahedeen Khdeir, the soldiers took Tariq to a hospital after about 6 hours, where he was handcuffed to a bed and soldiers guarded his room.
From the hospital the 15-year-old spent four days in jail and five days under house arrest before the Israli court allowed him to return home to Tampa.
In jail, his bed was a concrete slab covered with a thin mattress. The room was “filthy,” he said, and covered with roaches.
“They were mean, really mean,” Tariq said. “I'm still in shock, but I want to go back. I want my cousins to have the freedom and the safety I have at home.”
It was his mother's worst nightmare come true. Suha Khdeir was in her cousin's house mourning the loss of Mohammed Khdeir when she learned that Tariq was in jail. At first, she thought it was a joke, but then panic set in.
“They didn't let me get near him, touch him or talk to him. I looked over and all I could see was this distorted face I didn't even recognize and I was so scared something like this could happen to my son,” Suha said. “In America he's so protected, you make sure they go to the best schools so he's not bullied, and when I saw him I just went into a state of shock.”
Hassan Shibly, Tariq's lawyer and director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is also the family's neighbor and is still working to get justice for Tariq.
“Absent the media pressure because he is an American citizen, I'm confident Tariq would still be in jail right now, just like his cousins who are still in jail,” Shibly said.
Khdeir returned home to Tampa Wednesday night to a crowd of about 50 supporters. That night his family's home in Israel was ransacked and his uncle and cousins were arrested. He still gets headaches, and has contusions on his ribs and back. On the plane home his thoughts drifted to deep sea fishing, spending time with his friends at Universal Academy of Florida and his two sisters, Shahid, 10, and Jenna, 6, but his heart and mind is still in Israel with his family, he said.
“This is just a taste of what happens to Palestinians every single day,” Tariq said. “I wish my cousins had the same freedom I have every day, but this whole experience made me love Palestine even more, it's like I left a mark there, I left a piece of me over there.”