TAMPA, Florida (AP) — A Palestinian-American teen detained by Israeli security forces while on a family visit to the Middle East said Sunday he had been beaten, kicked and blindfolded after a cousin there was abducted and killed.
Fifteen-year-old Tariq Abu Khdeir flew home to Tampa last week and told The Associated Press in an interview from his home in Florida that he hopes he can eventually visit the region again and "come back safe."
"If I want to see my family members, I hope I can," he said, adding "I don't want to have any problems with anybody."
Israeli authorities released Tariq three days after he was detained and sentenced him to nine days of house arrest while they investigated what they said was his participation in violent protests over the death of his cousin, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian living near Jerusalem.
Seated beside his mother in their Tampa home, the teen told AP that he did not take part in rock-throwing disturbances before he was picked up by Israeli security forces. He said he just was watching and listening to a commotion surrounding the investigation of the disappearance of his cousin when Israeli forces began shooting rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd that had formed.
"I didn't do anything to them (Israeli authorities) to do this to me," he said.
The teen said in the first moments of being picked up that he was slammed down. And during the ordeal, he said, he was kicked on several parts of his body and blindfolded. In June, the family had opened the trip that was to have lasted about six weeks.
Tariq said in the interview that he and Mohammed had become close friends following his arrival. They visited sacred sites including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. They had fun, joked and played games. He said they also helped others in their neighborhood — setting up lights in neighbor's homes before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
"He took me to as many places as he could," Tariq said.
Mohammed was killed the fifth week of the visit, Tariq said, adding that the tenor of the trip immediately changed after the cousin disappeared and then was found dead.
"There was no next day," Tariq said.
Tariq said he had gone to a bakery for about five minutes the day Mohammed disappeared, returning to find him gone.
The American teen spent the next hours with relatives trying to find out from police what had happened to his cousin. After Mohammed was found dead, a crowd filled with family members formed and started screaming at the police, Tariq said.
"Everything was getting so tense," he recalled in the interview.
The neighborhood calmed before security forces came back and started shooting rubber bullets and tear gas, according to Tariq.
"When they were shooting at us, I went into an alley so I could get a better view and I just started sitting there thinking . I wanted to know why this is happening," Tariq said.
He saw people on his left running and screaming for help. Right behind them were three soldiers, he said. Everyone scattered and ran from the alley. Tariq said he tried to jump a gate but fell.
"I was running because I didn't know why they (Israeli authorities) were running after me," he said.
Tariq said he was slammed down, head first, when detained. He added that his hands were tied behind his back and he was kicked in the face, stomach and ribs and went unconscious for a time. Tariq said he was taken to jail where he was blindfolded and still handcuffed.
Tariq said he felt the hits again, after his release, when he watched a video of his beating.
"I couldn't believe it. All the stuff I went through," Tariq said. "I was getting hit so much, I couldn't even say words."
Although the teen showed no visible injuries Sunday, his mother said Tariq has visited the hospital since.
Now he's getting ready to go back to school in a few weeks.
"It's been a tough summer," he said, noting what began as a "fun" trip suddenly turned for the worse. "They took my cousin, my best friend ... they took him and they killed him."