Tariq Abu Khdeir, the 15-year-old Palestinian-American high school student from Tampa who was brutally attacked by Israeli police forces over a week ago while observing a protest in response to his cousin's murder, remains under house arrest in East Jerusalem today. But Khdeir has not been charged with any crime, and family members and others in Tampa's Arab-American community are unhappy that Congresswoman Kathy Castor hasn't called for the teen's release.
The youth was in the Middle East on vacation two weeks ago when his cousin, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped and burned alive by Israelis in what was suspected to be a revenge killing, coming as it did after the murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank that shocked Israel.
"Senator Nelson and Congresswoman Castor have a duty to issue immediate and unequivocal statements condemning the brutal beating of one of their constituents by the police forces of a nation that receives billions of our tax dollars," said Hassan Shibly of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in a statement released Sunday night. "Their public silence thus far gives the impression that they put the interests of Israeli police officers above that of American citizens."
A spokesperson for Congresswoman Castor sent an email to CL Sunday night that says the Tampa-based Democrat is working with the Khdeir family, and that Castor "agrees with the U.S. State Department position announced last week expressing dismay at reports that Tariq Khdeir was severely beaten while in police custody, strongly condemning any excessive use of force, and urging a speedy, transparent and credible investigation and full accountability for any excessive use of force."
And while the State Department has come out in support of Tariq, friends and family members of the Tampa teen are hoping for the same statement from their local member of Congress. In a conversation with CL, Shibly was more outspoken in his criticism, saying that "we have no doubt that if this was a Jewish-American student abducted by Hamas, we'd get a public statement."
Meanwhile, a distant relative of Khdeir says that Castor's chief-of-staff, Clay Phillips, was rude and inconsiderate to her when she spoke with him in Castor's Washington D.C. office last Tuesday.
Tamara Essayyad is a second cousin of Tariq Abu Khdeir (Tariq's father is her cousin). As an attorney living in Washington, she said family members called her last week to see if she could get in touch with Castor's office directly about Khdeir. She said that when she called on Thursday, July 3, the office was already closed for the holiday weekend. She received a call back late Monday afternoon, July 7, from a staffer who initially told her that the Khdeir family did not live in the congresswoman's district and thus was not her constituent.
"That's news to us," Essayad said she responded. She then made sure that the address was accurate and called the office again, where a staffer apologized and acknowledged that Tariq was
a constituent. She told a staffer she would come in to the office, and did so last Tuesday at noon to meet with Clay Phillips, Congresswoman Castor's chief-of-staff. It did not go well.
Essayad says she walked into Phillips' office with a copy of the New York Times
in her hand, and he immediately "ripped it out" of her hands.
"Shocked and appalled does not even begin to describe what I was feeling," she said about how the meeting began. She says that after she identified herself, Phillips did all the talking for the first five minutes and was "very aggressive" in his speech. "I told him to tone it the hell down," she told CL on Sunday night. "How dare you speak to me this way?" she said she told him. (On Monday Tamara Essayad emphasized that while she had made that comment to CL in an interview Sunday night, she in fact did not use the term "tone it the hell down" directly to Mr. Phillips).
But Phillips' tone noticeably changed for the better, she said, when she pulled out her cellphone, indicating that she was going to call Tariq's parents. But it really wasn't much more productive. "Have you called the embassy? Have you called the Consultate?" Essayad says she asked Phillips. "What has she done?" regarding the Congresswoman's response.
But Essayad says Phillips was noncommittal. "I asked, 'Is it because he's not an Israeli-American? Because he's a Palestinian-American? You are our representation.’ But he said, 'We're not going to talk about it."
Essayad says the conversation only lasted 10 minutes, and ended when Phillips said that "the family has to get an authorization." But Essayad says once she suggested she call Tariq's parents right then and there, Phillips stood up and led her out of his office, slamming the door.
"It was horrendous," she recalls.
"They've issued statements about manatees. They've issued statements about healthcare. But they haven't issued anything on this," Essayad says about press releases that have come out of Congresswoman Castor's office over the past week. "I'm obviously appalled that Tampa has such representation."
CL reached out to Phillips today for comment, but he had not responded as of early this afternoon.
The full text of Sunday's email to CL from spokesperson Marcia Mejia reads as follows:
Our office is assisting the Kdheir family. Congresswoman Castor agrees with the U.S. State Department position announced last week expressing dismay at reports that Tariq Khdeir was severely beaten while in police custody, strongly condemning any excessive use of force, and urging a speedy, transparent and credible investigation and full accountability for any excessive use of force.
Israel’s Justice Ministry announced that it was conducting such an investigation last week, and subsequently that it is leaning toward indicting the police officer responsible for excessive force. However, the investigation as to the entire series of events revolving around the protest has not concluded.
In this volatile time, Congresswoman Castor urges peace among peoples and accountability for those who target innocent youth for vengeful purposes.
On Friday a group of activists marched in front of the Federal building in downtown Tampa calling for Tariq Khdeir's release
from house arrest in Israel.