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L.A. Doctor Arrested in Israel

May 11, 2002

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LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Family, friends and co-workers know Riad Abdelkarim as a dedicated doctor and father of four who eats too much fast food, roots for the Anaheim Angels and has a caring bedside manner.

His name now carries another label as well: suspected terrorist.

Abdelkarim, arrested in Israel last weekend following a 10-day visit to a decimated Palestinian refugee camp, began a hunger strike Friday to protest his detention without formal charges, his family said.

``They have made all these accusations. It’s outrageous that they can get away with it,″ said his brother Basim Abdelkarim. ``If they have any evidence they would have charged him.″

Israeli officials won’t reveal the evidence against the Orange County doctor, citing security concerns. But a judge’s statement recorded in a U.S. State Department memo said Abdelkarim is ``being accused of membership in a terrorist organization and attempting to fund terrorist organizations.″

Those who know him are perplexed and angered by the accusation, but his past provides some clues as to why Israeli authorities may have taken an interest in the 34-year-old doctor.

Abdelkarim, born in California to Palestinian parents, is a frequent commentator on Middle East issues who has taken positions against both Arab extremism and Israeli army abuses. He was questioned by the FBI after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In an opinion piece he wrote after the questioning, he said he was singled out because of his ethnicity and political beliefs.

Abdelkarim is also a former board member of the Holy Land Foundation, which had its assets frozen in December after the Bush administration accused it of being a front for the militant group Hamas. Hamas claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed 15 at a pool hall in a Tel Aviv suburb Tuesday.

Basim Abdelkarim, also a doctor, does not believe his brother’s past affiliation with the foundation is cause for arrest. He said U.S. authorities have not arrested any members of Holy Land, the largest Islamic charity in the United States.

``I think that’s an excuse,″ he said. ``He was a board member for the group for one year. He stepped out of that organization ... My brother was not there to represent this group.″

Supporters said Riad Abdelkarim went to the refugee camp to assess medical needs in the Palestinian territories for the Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps and for Kinder USA, a children’s charity he recently founded.

International Medical Corps’ Web site describes the organization as a ``nonpolitical, nonsectarian organization″ that has provided medical relief and training in such hotspots as Afghanistan, Kosovo and Rwanda.

Those who know Abdelkarim say his trip was consistent with a lifetime of civic responsibility for the former high school valedictorian.

His brother said Abdelkarim keeps so busy he survives on a diet of fast food burgers and chicken nuggets, while making time to attend Angels baseball games and go to the movies with his family.

This week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson joined those asking for Abdelkarim’s release, said Tracy K. Rice, chief of the Los Angeles bureau of Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition.

In correspondence home, Abdelkarim said his visit to the Jenin refugee camp, where scores were killed in an Israeli military attack, had a profound effect on him.

``I feel an uncomfortable mixture of sadness, grief, anger and shame. I also feel guilt,″ he wrote in an e-mail sent to family and colleagues. ``My tax dollars helped pay for those bullets.″

Nobody could have witnessed the destruction without having a strong reaction, said Rushdi Cader, a doctor who invited Abdelkarim to accompany him on the fact-finding mission.

``When we went to Jenin, all I can say is that place is like Ground Zero. They bulldozed buildings with people still inside them. When you go through there, you smell rotting corpses,″ he said.

Israel has said it sent troops into the refugee camp to root out terrorists. Independent monitoring groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, reported no signs of a massacre but found evidence of human rights violations by Israeli Defense Forces.

Cader believes Israel may have detained Abdelkarim in an effort to suppress information the doctors gathered _ including detailed accounts of casualties _ at a time when U.N. investigators were prevented from conducting a probe.

Susan Cassidy, 47, a registered nurse who has worked with Abdelkarim, called him an exemplary doctor.

``He spends a lot of time with each patient that he sees,″ she said. ``A lot of physicians don’t do that.″

His four children, ages 12, 9, 5 and 3, had blown up balloons for their father’s welcome home party Sunday when Israeli authorities called to say he had been arrested.

Since then, friend Kathy Mostafaie has been lending the family a hand.

``His 5-year-old, Ali, is constantly asking me, ’Why is my dad not home?″ she said. ``His 12-year-old daughter needs help with her homework.″

``They are frightened,″ she said. ``They need their dad.″

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