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American teen beaten in Mideast is a cousin of slain Palestinian

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Palestinian American teen from Tampa gets caught up in violence near Jerusalem
Tampa teen was beaten by Israeli officials shortly after Palestinian cousin was kidnapped and killed
Palestinian family at center of recent Jerusalem violence has strong ties to the U.S.

The American high school student who was beaten and arrested during a clash with Israeli police last week is a good student who belongs to a large Palestinian family with strong ties to the U.S., relatives said Sunday.

Tariq Abukhdeir, 15, was born in Baltimore, lives in Tampa, Fla., and has family spread across the U.S., relatives said.

He is a cousin of Mohammed Abu Khudeir, the 16-year-old Palestinian who was kidnapped and burned alive last week, allegedly by Israeli ultra-nationalists.

Tariq was on a family trip to visit relatives in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat when the bodies of three kidnapped Jewish teenagers were found June 30. Naftali Frenkel, 16, a U.S.-Israeli citizen; Gil-Ad Shaer, 16; and Eyal Yifrah, 19, had been missing for 18 days. They were buried July 1, and Tariq's cousin Mohammed was kidnapped hours later. His body was found July 2. 

"It was a summer break," an aunt, Fatima Abu Khdeir of Baltimore, told the Baltimore Sun on Sunday. "It was fun. They were excited."

Tariq had gotten to know his Palestinian-born cousin over Facebook before traveling to Shuafat for a family wedding and a month-long family reunion, his aunt said. Tariq wasn't there "looking to fight," she said.

Mohammed had lived in the village all his life and was studying to be an electrician like his father, Ahd Abukhdair, a 25-year-old cousin, told the Los Angeles Times. In a phone interview from Shuafat, she fondly recalled Mohammed as a "girl-crazy guy."

"He was always looking at girls and saying stuff about them, like, 'This is a cute one,'" said Ahd Abukhdair, who would tease Mohammed by saying, "You’re too young for that."

Tariq and Mohammed were inseparable in Shuafat, family members told the Sun. The pair had been together outside a neighborhood mosque before prayers early Wednesday when six men kidnapped Mohammed off the street, relatives said.

"When we woke up in the morning and found out, there were soldiers [already] protecting the Jewish settlements" that surround Shuafat, Dimah Abukhdeir, a cousin from Chicago who moved to Shuafat seven months ago, told The Times.

Israeli security forces and the Palestinian men in the village clashed. Tariq was beaten and arrested by Israeli officials on Thursday.

Footage published on YouTube that has been widely circulated in the media purports to show Tariq being pummeled by a police officer as he lay face-down on the ground, his hands bound. Israeli security officials accused Tariq of taking part in a riot, but Tariq and his family said he was just watching.

After his arrest, Tariq's father, Salah Abu Khdeir, began shouting in the street, "They took my son! They took my son!" Dimah Abukhdeir said.

Tariq was released into home detention Sunday while officials investigate his conduct. He told reporters he felt better despite two black eyes, but added that he was "very angry" and "speechless."

News about Tariq's treatment drew a rebuke from U.S. officials.

"We are profoundly troubled by reports that he was severely beaten while in police custody and strongly condemn any excessive use of force," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Saturday. "We are calling for a speedy, transparent and credible investigation and full accountability for any excessive use of force."

The Israeli Justice Ministry said it had opened an investigation after the video purporting to capture the incident emerged. Earlier, a police spokeswoman said Tariq had resisted arrest and had a slingshot in his possession. 

After his release, his family released photos of Tariq's battered and bulging face, almost unrecognizable from the playful selfies he'd posted on his Facebook page while back home.

"His entire face is swollen, his eyes are red, you can’t even recognize who he is," Dimah Abukhdeir said Sunday. "I saw him today for the first time and I was about to cry."

An older Baltimore cousin who said he had known Tariq since the teen's birth, Thayer Abukhdeir, 20, told The Times he was "flabbergasted" by Tariq's treatment and home detention.

"They’re just prolonging his suffering, which is outrageous," said Thayer Abukhdeir, who joined other family members outside the White House on Saturday to protest. "They're doing this to a 15-year-old boy who has nothing to do with the violence over there. It’s sad. It’s pathetic on the [Israeli] side. It’s just pathetic."

Tariq's family in Shuafat said what happened to him is different only because he is American. Other family members also were beaten and detained for little reason after the demonstration, the relatives said.

"Tariq is the only one receiving any publicity because he’s an American citizen," said Dimah Abukhdeir.

Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Follow @MattDPearce for national news

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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