Palestine’s innocent victims

July 15, 2014

Following the discovery of the bodies of three teenaged settlers, Israeli society has whipped up a racist frenzy against Palestinians--with deadly assaults by its military and Israeli mobs roaming the streets, chanting "Death to Arabs!" On July 2, six Israelis forced 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir into a car, beat him, and then set him on fire, killing him. A few days later, Mohammed's 15-year-old cousin Tarek Abu Khdeir, a U.S. citizen who was visiting family in the West Bank, was handcuffed and beaten unconscious by Israeli police.

Zayne Abu Khdeir, who lives in the U.S., is a relative of both of the victims. He spoke with Tom Gagné and Sean Phillips about how his family is dealing with the horror inflicted by Israel on Mohammed and Tarek.

THE U.S. media tends to dehumanize the Palestinian victims of Israel's violence. Could you take a moment to tell us about your cousin Mohammed?

HE WAS just a normal kid. He had plenty of friends. He grew up in a family of seven, so he was very social. Any time his cousins came in from America, he got along with them. That's one thing about our family--you can go 10 years without seeing someone, but when they come in, it's like you just saw them yesterday.

Our cousin Tarek was one of his best friends, and when Mohamed was killed, he didn't get nearly as much attention as when Tarek got beat up. Publicity is good, but it's a skewed scale of value.

HOW IS your family dealing with this tragedy?

IT'S DEFINITELY hard losing a child, but Mohamed's parents have definitely taken it a lot better than people would have thought. The fact that his case has received some attention has helped, but it can't make up for their loss. I haven't seen them or spoken to them since, but from what I've heard from other family members, they're doing okay.

Tarek Abu Khdeir after his beating by Israeli police
Tarek Abu Khdeir after his beating by Israeli police

I know Tarek's parents very well. I grew up with them in Baltimore, and they're pushing for as much publicity as possible for Tarek's situation--to get national attention and to get recognition of the Palestinian situation. I don't think many people understand what it's like to be Palestinian and daily life back there--checkpoints everywhere you go, being treated as second-class citizens.

WHAT DO you think of the international response to the situation?

I THINK more people support Palestine internationally than here in the U.S. The United States backs Israel so much that the Palestinian situation goes under the radar until Palestine responds. If Hamas bombs Tel Aviv, it's all over the media, but I think internationally--like in Europe--you hear both sides, you see more of it. You have protests in London all the time, protests in Spain all the time--and here, how often do we have protests in Atlanta?

WHAT'S IT like to visit your family in Palestine?

I'VE BEEN twice, but it's been about seven or eight years. One thing I don't think people understand is that there's a big difference between conditions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and conditions in Gaza. They live--day in and day out--very hard lives in Gaza. When I go to visit, I'm in a middle-class village, and it's with my family, and we just play soccer in the streets and go eat at all our aunts' houses. We just hang out with family.

But when we start getting into areas like Ramallah and Jerusalem, where it's a little bit mixed, you definitely feel the hatred. When you cross through the Israeli district in Ramallah, they're not going to talk to you or even try to sell you anything. There's definitely tension.

Kids are born with it almost. From a young age you know, "This is Israel and this is Palestine, and we don't get along." That hatred is never going to break unless something breaks that chain with raising the kids.

HOW DO you feel about describing Israel as an apartheid state?

IT'S DEFINITELY an apartheid state. You have a checkpoint every so often, and you can't get in if you're from Gaza, or you can't even go certain places because you're Palestinian, or you get strip-searched just to be able to cross through. You definitely don't feel like you're on the same level as an Israeli. Ever.

CAN YOU tell us your opinion about the media's reporting on the death of your cousin?

IT'S SAD that the three Israeli kids died, but they got so much media attention compared to Mohammed. Day in and day out, Palestinian children die. I saw a cartoon that showed a scale with three bodies on one side and dozens or hundreds on the other, and it's weighted toward the side with three bodies. What gets out internationally in the media is what the Israelis want.

I mean, how many people have died in Gaza in just the last few days? But you hear all about the little rockets Hamas is shooting back, which isn't right, but it's still very skewed in the media. And Hamas doesn't have technology nearly as up to date as Israel.

CAN YOU talk about trying to survive in Palestine during "normal" times?

LIKE I said, my family is a larger family, and they're from a middle-class village, so it's not hard for them to get necessities. But in cities like Ramallah, there are people who struggle to survive. I can't go into Gaza, no one can, so I've never seen how it is there, but I've seen videos of kids picking bread up off the street. It's just sad.

It ages the kids, too, because there are 10-year-old kids talking about life and how God is going to watch after them, and it'll be all right.

One thing Palestinians have is pride. They never give up, and that's how they've been able to survive this situation for 70 years now.

IS THIS the first time your family been impacted by the occupation in such a terrible way?

NO. THE thing that made this so sensitive, I think, was the fact that this was settlers, and not the military, and it was the first revenge attack after they found the bodies of the three settlers. But I have an uncle who has been in and out of jail for the last 40 years because he's an important figure in the community. They'll come to his house and jail him for no reason.

I mean, they jailed Tarek, an American citizen--fined him and placed him under house arrest with no charges. I wouldn't call it a democracy. They can do whatever they want to us. There are children as young as 12 in Israeli prisons. And Tarek wasn't doing anything, just watching kids in the street.

But I think that because he was the last person known to have seen Mohamed alive, that could have had something to do with his being attacked by the soldiers.

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