WICHITA, Kan. – Authorities in the U.S. have accused a divorced Palestinian man of illegally moving his three children from their home in Kansas to his native Gaza earlier this year.
Their mother, Bethany Gonzales, says she wants her children back in the U.S., but she has limited political and legal means available to her in the Gaza Strip, a largely isolated and impoverished Palestinian territory ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The father, Ahmed Abuhamda, denies any wrongdoing, saying he followed the couple's divorce decree when he moved the children from the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park to the Middle East in February.
However, Abuhamda has been charged in Kansas with aggravated interference with parental custody. Last week, he was charged in a federal criminal complaint in U.S. District Court with fleeing to avoid prosecution on the three state felony counts.
Under the couple's 2008 divorce decree, the children lived with the father and the mother had visitation rights.
The federal court filing alleges Abuhamda used his sister's wedding in Gaza to convince his ex-wife to sign off on passport applications for the children -- 13-year-old Jehed, 10-year-old Edhem and 9-year-old Jannah. He picked up the three children from school Feb. 21, but instead of returning the children in March, he unlawfully kept them in Gaza, according to court documents.
The divorce decree allows Abuhamda to move the children overseas, provided he has their mother's permission. Abuhamda told The Associated Press in a phone interview from the Gaza Strip that he had her blessing, but Gonzales said that's untrue and he deceived her.
Though U.S. authorities have charged Abuhamda, authorities in Gaza are unlikely to pursue the matter. The U.S. arrest warrant can be registered with Interpol, but Gaza does not have to honor it. Gonzales could appeal diplomatically to Hamas leaders and try to put political pressure on authorities there, but there's little guarantee they would listen.
The Hague Convention, an international treaty that provides for the return of wrongfully removed or retained children, includes only one Muslim nation, Turkey, said Andrew Zashin, an international family law attorney from Cleveland, Ohio, who is not involved in the case.
Family law in Gaza, like in most Arab countries, is based on Sharia Islamic law. It awards legal guardianship of the child to the father while granting physical custody for rearing the child to the mother until a boy reaches age 9 and a girl reaches age 12, although some countries have now extended that to age 15 regardless of gender. However, a mother would not be able to leave the country with her children without the father's permission.
"It is a very tragic situation," said Abed Awad, an expert on Islamic Sharia law and adjunct law professor at Rutgers University Law School in New Jersey. "She faces substantial hurdles to secure the return of her children."
The U.S.-born Gonzales met Abuhamda in Missouri after converting to Islam at age 15. The couple talked over the phone for a year and went out on couple of dates before deciding to marry in 1996, when Gonzales was 16.
She and Abuhamda moved sporadically between the U.S. and Gaza between 1997 and 2005. Their oldest son, Jehed, was born in Gaza, while the other two children were born in the U.S. After their divorce, the couple lived a 10-minute drive apart in Overland Park.
Gonzales contends she allowed the children to go to Gaza in February for the wedding and that Abuhamda led her to believe he had booked flights back to the U.S. for them. She showed the AP an email she said her ex-husband sent her beforehand that indicated a "reservation confirmed" flight back to Kansas.
"There is no way I would agree for my kids to go there and stay there," said Gonzales, 32.
She said she contacted authorities after she found out the return flight information was fake. By then, her ex-husband's apartment had been cleaned out. She said she later got a text message from him saying he was not coming back.
Abuhamda, 40, said his ex-wife knew he was taking the children to live in Gaza and that he never lied to her.
"I didn't kidnap the kids, and the kids know that we are going to live overseas," he said.
Abuhamda, who was unaware of the U.S. criminal charges until his family was contacted for comment, insisted he had the right to take the children. He also said he has offered to pay for his ex-wife to come to Gaza to visit them.
Gonzales, who remarried in 2010 and now has a 3-month-old son, said she talks regularly by phone with her three children in Gaza. She said she's fearful for them amid the "constant chaos" there.
"It is not safe," she said. "It is not safe on either side, from the airstrikes to the government that is running that area."
The Gaza Strip is a densely populated coastal enclave of 1.7 million people. Israel has launched airstrikes in Gaza in response to frequent rocket fire from militant groups targeting southern Israel.
Abuhamda said the children are enrolled in an American school. They live in an apartment building in an upscale neighborhood in Gaza City, though power outages are not uncommon.
"They are here with me and they are happy," Abuhamda said of his children.