Custody Battle Pits U.S. Mother Against Father Who Moved His Kids to Gaza

Federal court filing says Ahmed Abuhamda convinced his ex-wife, Bethany Gonzales, to sign off on passport applications for the children so they could go to his sister's wedding in Gaza, however he then unlawfully kept them there.

Authorities in the United States have accused a divorced Palestinian man of illegally moving his three children from their home in Kansas to his native Gaza, without the consent of their mother.

A federal court filing says Ahmed Abuhamda convinced his ex-wife, Bethany Gonzales, to sign off on passport applications for the children so that they could go to his sister's wedding in the Gaza strip. But, the court document alleges that instead of bringing them back home in March, as he was supposed to, he unlawfully kept them in Gaza.

Bethany Gonzales with her three children

Abuhamda denies any wrongdoing. "I didn't kidnap the kids, and the kids know that we are going to live overseas," he said. He claims that he moved his children overseas with their mother's permission, as is required by the former couple's divorce decree. Gonzales insists he led her to believe he had booked flights back for the children, 13-year-old Jehed, 10-year-old Edhem and 9-year-old Jannah. Gonzales showed the AP an e-mail she said her ex-husband sent her beforehand that indicated a "reservation confirmed" flight back to Kansas. Under the ex-couple's 2008 divorce agreement, the children lived with Abuhamda; Gonzales had visitation rights.

"There is no way I would agree for my kids to go [to Gaza] and stay there," said Gonzales, 32. She said she contacted authorities after she found out the return flight information was fake. By then, her ex-husband's apartment had been cleaned out. She said she later got a text message from him saying he was not coming back.

Gonzales says the political and legal means available to her in the Gaza Strip are limited. Family law in Gaza, like in most Arab countries, is based on sharia law, the legal code of Islam. It awards legal guardianship of the child to the father while granting physical custody for rearing the child to the mother until a boy reaches age 9 and a girl reaches age 12. Some countries have now extended the mother's custody to age 15 regardless of gender. However, a mother would not be able to leave the country with her children without the father's permission.

Abuhamda, 40, has been charged in Kansas with aggravated interference with parental custody. Last week, he was charged in a federal criminal complaint in U.S. District Court with fleeing to avoid prosecution on the three state felony counts. The American arrest warrant can be registered with Interpol, the international criminal police. But Gaza does not have to honor it, and authorities there are unlikely to pursue the matter. Gonzales could appeal diplomatically to Hamas leaders and try to put political pressure on authorities there, but there's little guarantee they would listen.

The Hague Convention, an international treaty that provides for the return of wrongfully removed or retained children, includes only one Muslim nation, Turkey, said Andrew Zashin, an international family law attorney from Cleveland, Ohio, who is not involved in the case.

Abed Awad, an expert on sharia law and adjunct law professor at Rutgers University Law School in New Jersey, calls the situation very tragic, adding that Gonzales "faces substantial hurdles to secure the return of her children."

The U.S.-born Gonzales met Abuhamda in Missouri after converting to Islam at age 15. The couple talked over the phone for a year and went out on couple of dates before deciding to marry in 1996, when Gonzales was 16. She and Abuhamda moved sporadically between the U.S.-and Gaza between 1997 and 2005. Their oldest son, Jehed, was born in Gaza, while the other two children were born in the U.S. After their divorce, the couple lived a 10-minute drive apart in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park.

Abuhamda, who was unaware of the U.S. criminal charges until his family was contacted for comment, insisted he had the right to take the children. He also said he has offered to pay for his ex-wife to come to Gaza to visit them. Gonzales, who remarried in 2010 and now has a 3-month-old son, said she talks regularly by phone with her three children in Gaza. She said she's fearful for them amid the "constant chaos" there.

"It is not safe," she said. "It is not safe on either side, from the airstrikes to the government that is running that area."

Abuhamda said the children are enrolled in an American school. They live in an apartment building in an upscale neighborhood in Gaza City, though power outages are not uncommon. "They are here with me and they are happy," Abuhamda said of his children.