Calling his experience a "nightmare," an Anaheim doctor released from Israel after a two-week detention on suspicion of terrorist activity returned Monday to an all-American homecoming of fluttering flags and his favorite burger--a "double-double" from In-N-Out.
At an exuberant welcome of about 70 family members and friends at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Riad Abdelkarim clutched his youngest son, Omar, and expressed gratitude for his American freedoms and thanked God and his family for helping him endure his ordeal.
"I'm happy and proud to be a citizen of this great nation," said Abdelkarim, looking gaunt and fatigued, at a packed airport news conference. "It's great to be home. It's great to be free."
Later, in an interview, the 34-year-old Santa Monica native said he was never formally charged with any crimes nor shown any evidence of wrongdoing during his detention in what he described as a cockroach-infested jail in a Tel Aviv suburb. He called the detention "an attempt to sabotage any humanitarian efforts on behalf of Palestinian civilians in the occupied territories."
Israeli officials have largely declined to comment on his case but told Israeli newspapers last week that he was suspected of possibly funding "terror attacks." Abdelkarim was a member for one year of the board of directors of the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity outlawed by Israel and the United States on charges that it funded the Hamas militant group. The foundation denies the charges of terrorist activity and is suing the U.S. government for freezing its funds.
David Douek, a spokesman at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, said he had no information about Abdelkarim's case but did say, "We don't hold people without just cause." He also called "baseless" accusations that Israel is blocking humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians, saying the Jewish state had delivered more than 6,000 tons of milk and flour to them even after the Passover suicide bombings inflamed the Israeli public.
Abdelkarim's detention rallied American Muslims nationally and drew gestures of help from people ranging from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who offered to travel to Israel to seek the doctor's release. His case sparked calls for U.S. investigations into Israeli treatment of the six to 12 American aid workers from Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and other states believed to be under Israeli detention, according to Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.
A news conference of several American aid workers previously detained in Israel is scheduled today. Several international organizations, including the International Red Cross, have charged Israel with shooting at aid workers, blocking doctors from treating the wounded and other acts.
Abdelkarim was sent to Israel by the International Medical Corps, a Los Angeles-based global humanitarian organization, to assess medical needs in the Palestinian territories. Among other things, he said, he visited Bethlehem and Beit Jala to interview local medical experts on the impact of the violence on children.
Abdelkarim was detained May 5 as he attempted to board a flight home. Another American aid worker, Dalell Mohmed of Dallas, was also detained and released last week after eight days of near-solitary confinement.
During days of interrogations that lasted as long as 10 hours, Abdelkarim said, Israeli security police repeatedly threw out accusations "like a mantra" that he had helped fund suicide bombers and terrorists. But Abdelkarim said the interrogators did not particularly dwell on his relationship with the Holy Land Foundation. Nor did interrogators focus on International Medical Corps or KinderUSA, a new charity he and others founded to help Palestinian children after U.S. authorities shut down Holy Land.
"They were on a fishing expedition," he said. "They wanted to bully and intimidate nascent American relief organizations."
Abdelkarim said he was not physically mistreated. In her own news conference last week, Mohmed said she believed he was being tortured because she heard him scream out in the next room, "Stop! Stop this now!" But the doctor said he had lost patience with interrogators for accusing him of giving money to families of Palestinian suicide bombers and yelled at them to stop.
He said he was kept in a small room with eight to 13 other men for part of the time and was moved to what he called a "dungeon"--a gray room with no windows and poor ventilation--after he complained about his room to his attorney and U.S. consular officials. Food consisted of cucumbers, boiled eggs, bread, occasional chicken and yogurt, but Abdelkarim said he went on a hunger strike after the first few days.
Although he signed an expulsion order that will bar him from returning to Israel, Abdelkarim said he told his Israeli guards that he hopes to return someday after a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians is achieved.
After taking some time off to with his wife, Wijdan, and their four children, Abdelkarim said he wants to "get back to doing what I do best--taking care of my patients."