Dr. Riad Abdelkarim, chairman of KinderUSA, an American Muslim charity, arrived home in Irvine, Calif., May 20, after being held for 15 days without charges in an Israeli prison.

Abdelkarim, born in California of Palestinian parents, was completing a fact-finding mission with the International Medical Corps in the Israeli-occupied territories when he and a colleague from the mission were arrested on May 5 at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv as they prepared to depart for home. Another colleague, Dalell Mohmed, KinderUSA executive director, was arrested at gunpoint in her hotel the same day. All three are U.S. citizens.

The three were held “on suspicion of membership in a terror organization,” but no charges were filed. A hearing on Abdelkarim’s detainment scheduled for May 19 was canceled without explanation and he was released along with his co-workers.

Abdelkarim was held at the Petach Tikva Detention Center in an 18-foot-wide by 15-foot-high cell which he shared with 13 others. He spent the last three days of his detention in solitary confinement.

Before his arrest, he had traveled to the Jenin refugee camp, where the Israeli military had left widespread death and destruction. In an e-mail home, he wrote, “I feel an uncomfortable mixture of sadness, grief, anger and shame. I also feel guilt. My tax dollars helped pay for those bullets.”

Relief workers in the occupied territories say the arrest is part of a determined effort by the Israeli authorities to block all humanitarian aid to the victims in Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah.

At the time of the arrests, KinderUSA, a Dallas-based nonprofit relief organization, was assessing humanitarian aid needs in the areas most severely affected by the Israeli occupation.

“We had only just begun our work,” said Mohmed. “On Sunday, the day of our arrest, our food distribution in Jenin was to begin.”

Miranda Sissons of Human Rights Watch told the World these detentions are “very clearly part of a wider pattern.” Since last winter, and especially since the Israeli military offensive in the occupied territories, she said, there has been a sharp increase in Israeli obstruction of reputable international human rights workers, including denials of entry and detentions.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) issued a statement welcoming Abdelkarim’s release, but called on the Bush administration to ensure that Americans being held by Israel are given their due process rights and are not mistreated. The ADC said it is specifically concerned about the fates of five men who were arrested after delivering food to Palestinians in the Church of the Nativity on May 2. At least some of these men are reported to be U.S. citizens.

The ADC said there are numerous cases of Arab Americans being tortured while in Israeli detention and subjected to trials involving secret evidence, military judges and inadequate representation. The group said there are also many cases in which Israeli authorities have refused to recognize the American citizenship of Arab Americans in Israel and the occupied territories.

Sissons confirmed this, saying the Israeli government refusal to recognize the U.S. or other citizenship of people of Palestinian descent is a long-standing concern. The ADC asked the U.S. government to “provide equal protection to all of its citizens abroad, regardless of their ethnicity and regardless of which state’s authority they are under.”

Sabiha Kham, spokesperson for the Southern California Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Abdelkarim “was on a humanitarian mission. You can’t get more American than that.”

Mohmed said that, with Abdelkarim’s release and return home, their relief work will continue. “What Dr. Abdelkarim and myself have gone through pales in comparison to what the Palestinian people must endure on a daily basis,” she said. “We cannot sit back and bear witness to the inhumanity taking place against these innocent civilians, particularly the children.”

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.