TAMPA, Fla. – The Palestinian-American teenager who relatives say was beaten by Israeli authorities has returned home to Florida and says he will never think of freedom in the same way again.
Tariq Abu Khdeir, 15, and his mother flew back to Tampa late Wednesday on a flight arriving from New York and were greeted by about 50 cheering supporters waving American and Palestinian flags. The Khdeirs had flown out of Israel earlier in the day.
"I am only 15 but I will never think of freedom the same as I did two months ago," Tariq said upon arrival at Tampa International Airport. "No child, whether they are Palestinian or Israeli, deserves to die."
The teenager said the thoughts and prayers of the supporters had helped him, adding "I got through these past two weeks because I knew you were all thinking of me."
Now, he said, he just wanted some relaxation and time with friends. "It feels so good to be back in Tampa. Can I even put it in words? I can't wait to go back to play with my friends and go fishing," he added.
Hassan Shibly, the teen's attorney and the executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Monday that Tariq suffered head trauma and had to receive stitches on his face when beaten two weeks ago as he was arrested during a protest. Supporters say Tariq's beating was videotaped. The Israeli justice ministry has said an investigation has been opened into the footage.
There were no immediately apparent signs of injuries to Khdeir on his arrival.
Israeli authorities released Tariq shortly after his arrest and sentenced him to nine days of house arrest while they investigated what they say was his participation in violent protests over the death of Tariq's cousin, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir. His family denied that he participated in the protests. Palestinians suspect Mohammed Abu Khdeir was killed by Israeli extremists exacting revenge for the abduction and killings of three Israeli teens in the West Bank last month.
His mother, Suha Khdeir, said Wednesday in Tampa that the last two weeks had been a "nightmare." She wiped tears from her eyes as she spoke and added she was "grateful" for the support she received at home in the Tampa area.
"I cannot begin to describe to you the pain I felt when I looked at his face for the first time after that beating," she said.
Friends and family have said Tariq went on a vacation to visit relatives he hadn't seen in about 10 years — not to be part of a conflict. They have described him as a good student who likes basketball, soccer and video games.
Tariq's arrest happened shortly before Israel attacked Gaza to stop Hamas members from launching rockets into its territory. Earlier Wednesday, Israel and Hamas agreed to a five-hour U.N. brokered "humanitarian" pause to their 9-day-long battle, offering the most encouraging sign yet that the fierce fighting could come to an end. Israel's bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 200 Palestinians, including four boys struck on a beach Wednesday by shells fired from a navy ship.
The attorney Shibly said Monday that a complaint has been filed with the Israeli government by the teen's father.