JERUSALEM — For many years, an old and respected Palestinian clan, the Abu Khieder family, has welcomed their American cousins to spend summers in East Jerusalem, greet their elders, learn Arabic and maybe even find spouses.
But the murder of three Jewish Israeli students in the West Bank this summer — and the alleged revenge killing of teenager Mohammad Abu Khieder, who was burned alive, a crime with which several Jews have been charged — upended the tradition and engulfed the established middle-class family in riots, beatings and arrests.
Family members say that as many as 30 members of the Abu Khieder clan have been arrested by Israeli security forces in recent weeks. Among those arrested is a dentist who provided emergency medical care during one violent protest and an uncle who hosted a Tampa teenager whose beating drew an international outcry. As many as 15 members of the family remain jailed.
The protests — launched in July after the killing of 17-year-old Mohammad Abu Khieder — have calmed. But news that an American citizen is among the Abu Khieder family members still jailed has drawn high-level U.S. scrutiny of the treatment of the East Jerusalem clan, whose American cousins live across the United States, working in places including Hollywood and the White House.
“We are concerned about the fact that members of the Khieder family appeared to be singled out for arrest by the Israeli authorities,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said last week.
Specifically, Harf said, U.S. officials were vexed that the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem was not notified of the arrest of Mohammad Abu Khieder, 19, a Baltimore-born U.S. citizen who has the same name as the slain teen. The American is accused of throwing firecrackers at police.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said he could not provide specifics on the arrests.
“I don’t have any idea on the numbers or statistics,” he said. “A number of organizations might be investigating. In terms of the investigation — who, when, what — I don’t have any further details. No idea.”
The concern has united a family spread from Orlando to Sacramento with deep American roots. Some members have served in the U.S. military from as early as World War I and as recently as the U.S. involvement in Iraq. They include a U.S. Army sergeant who recently helped evacuate U.S. citizens from Baghdad.
“It’s an outrage,” said one member of the clan, Omar Kader, chairman of the Middle East Policy Council and chief executive of Planning and Learning Technologies, a private Arlington, Va.-based government contracting agency.
He is one of six U.S.-born brothers, all military veterans, whose family changed the spelling of the Khieder family name. His son works in the White House as a research director.
Many Abu Khieders compared the summer tensions in East Jerusalem to the protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the police shooting there of an unarmed black teenager.
“They’re young and they’re going to react the way they did, throwing rocks, chanting, protesting,” said Kefah Abu Khieder, a mother of five who lived among the clan in Shuafat, an East Jerusalem district, but decided to take her four sons to her parents’ home in Atlanta and enroll them in school there this fall.
The young Abu Khieder men who have been arrested, and their families, deny that they did anything illegal. They insist that those arrested had attended protests peacefully or were bystanders.
“I think I will try to get a total amnesty for them all,” said Leah Tsemel, an attorney for a dozen Abu Khieders.
On a recent night, a group of Abu Khieders gathered under the stone archways of a restored historic building that serves as the family retreat in East Jerusalem. As the heat of the day faded, they discussed the murder of Mohammad Abu Khieder and its aftermath. It was described as a watershed moment for a family whose roots go back hundreds of years in East Jerusalem, which Palestinian leaders hope someday to make their capital.
“Call it Israel, call it Palestine,” said Mohammad Abu Khieder, 66. “Human rights leads my life, not religion.”
The events that eventually touched the Abu Khieder family were set in motion in June with the kidnappings of three Israeli teens hitchhiking in the West Bank. Some Jewish protesters joined in chants of “Death to Arabs.”
The discovery that Mohammad Abu Khieder, 17, had been slain July 2 was announced from the minaret of the mosque in Shuafat. It was met with a heavy Israeli security cordon. Protesters responded with rocks and molotov cocktails.
Tensions grew with the beating by Israeli security forces of Tariq Abu Khieder, 15, one of the victim’s cousins and a U.S. citizen, who was in East Jerusalem on summer vacation. He said he was just watching, not participating. Israeli officials contest that.
“Why was an American citizen involved in a full-scale riot and throwing stones, and arrested with six other students who were also wearing keffiyehs, and some of them armed with knives?” said police spokesman Rosenfeld.
The uncle who hosted Tariq, Issa Abu Khieder, 58, a cabdriver, said Israeli security forces came to his house hours after he took Tariq to the airport, arresting him and his son Musa, 29, and ransacking the house in the early hours of July 18.
Issa Abu Khieder was released five days later, but Musa, who is to be married Oct. 25, remains in custody.
The father said police returned July 29, hours after a protest, to arrest his Baltimore-born son, Mohammad. He is trying to free him in time for him to begin his senior year of high school in Shuafat, in hopes that he can attend university in the United States.
Another family member, Mohammad Jaser Abu Khieder, a dentist seen in news videos helping people injured during the riots, has been under arrest since early August, according to his father, also named Jaser.
Amin Abu Khieder, a family member who owns a Baltimore gas station, married a Shuafat woman last year. They just had triplets.
“It’s a shock. My kids are newborn,” he said. “Can’t we all just get along? That’s what we say in America.”