California doctor arrested after visiting Palestinian refugee camp

By Sandra Marquez, The Associated Press
Friday May 10, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Family, friends and coworkers 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 with patients. 

His name also carries a new connotation: suspected terrorist. Abdelkarim remains detained in Israel after his arrest following a 10-day visit to a decimated Palestinian refugee camp. 

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 of internal medicine. 

Abdelkarim is a frequent commentator on Middle East issues who was questioned by the FBI after the terrorist attacks and wrote an opinion piece in which he condemned being singled out because of his ethnicity or political beliefs. 

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

Dr. Basim Abdelkarim of Torrance does not believe his brother’s past affiliation with the group is cause for his arrest in Israel. 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.” 

Rather, supporters said Abdelkarim was on a mission to assess medical needs in the Palestinian territories for the Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps and his own recently founded children’s charity, Kinder USA. 

They say the trip was consistent with a lifetime of civic responsibility for the former high school valedictorian who graduated summa cum laude from the University of California, Los Angeles before attending medical school at UC San Diego. 

After medical school, he completed his residency and internship at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in his hometown of Torrance. 

In September 2000 he became a partner in the Southern California Permanente Medical Group in Anaheim. 

His brother said Abdelkarim keeps so busy he survives on a diet of In-N-Out burgers and chicken nuggets, but he still finds time to attend Angels baseball games and go to the movies with his family. 

“Other people would rather be on the golf course,” said Khalid Turaani, 36, of Washington, D.C., who sits with Abdelkarim on the board of the group American Muslims for Jerusalem. “I see him as a humanist. He has his own career. He writes. He is verbal about his concerns. He writes about other issues besides the Palestinian issue.” 

In correspondence home, Abdelkarim said his visit to the Jenin refugee camp, where Israeli forces last month killed at least 52 people, had a profound effect on him. He described “a horrible, foul, spine-tingling odor,” as well as and a sense of shame. 

“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... When I tell camp survivors that I’m from the United States, I am ashamed. I, too, am responsible for this.” 

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

Cader also was detained at Ben Gurion International Airport on Sunday but was freed after six hours. 

“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. “I am an emergency room doctor. When I went through that camp, I could not go through without crying.” 

Cader rejects the suggestion that the emotional experience may have pushed Abdelkarim from activism to terrorism. 

Instead, he believes Israel may have wanted to suppress the 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 the past two years, called him an exemplary doctor who travels to the Middle East to help despite the risks. 

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

She spoke out to show “there are other people who believe in him and are concerned about him besides Middle Easterners.” 

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

Since then, family friend Kathy Mostafaie has pitched in to try to ease tensions. 

“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; they need their dad.”