Student kidnapped while traveling in Israel

By and
Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Summer travel misadventures for the typical Brown student might include delayed flights, lost luggage or errant taxi drivers, but one rising senior ran into far greater trouble simply by stepping into the wrong coffee shop. While smoking hookah in Israel’s West Bank, Benjamin Bright-Fishbein ’07 was kidnapped by Palestinian gunmen and released less than 24 hours later.

Israeli news sources reported that Bright-Fishbein, an American citizen, was studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a videotape of him filmed by his captors showed him holding a Hebrew University identification card.

After studying abroad for the Fall 2005 semester at a University-sponsored program at the American University in Cairo, Bright-Fishbein took a leave of absence from the University for Spring 2006. It wasn’t until June that he underwent the experience he later described as “both terrifying and enlightening.”

Though the incident garnered international media attention and Bright-Fishbein refers to it among friends as his “little adventure,” he declined to be interviewed and instead told The Herald in an e-mailed statement: “Having lived through this experience once, I prefer not to relive it by delving into its painful details.”

While traveling alone on June 10 in the West Bank city of Nablus, which is controlled by Palestinians, Bright-Fishbein was snatched from a coffee shop by a gunman named Ahmed, according to news reports.

“He had a pistol, a grenade and a machine gun. I didn’t want to be in his company, but it seemed I didn’t have any choice at that point,” Bright-Fishbein told Israeli reporters after he was released.

After the ordeal, Bright-Fishbein told Israeli reporters he had wanted to see the city because he had heard of its beauty, but he could not find anyone to go with him. In his statement to The Herald, Bright-Fishbein acknowledged he “should not have gone unaccompanied.”

“I should not have gone at all,” he wrote.

Israelis are prohibited from visiting Nablus and other Arab-controlled cities because of the danger of terrorist activity, according to Israeli news agency Arutz Sheva.

Bright-Fishbein’s visit to Nablus came the day after Hamas declared it would renew attacks on Israel after a 16-month ceasefire. Bright-Fishbein told The Herald he was unaware of the development.

“What I did was stupid and reckless,” Bright-Fishbein wrote. “Yes, I have many friends that have been to Nablus before. Yes, I saw myriad tourists in Nablus that day. But these are just excuses.”

Security forces negotiated Bright-Fishbein’s release with Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant group linked to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party, a senior Palestinian security official told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Fatah militants were apparently behind the kidnapping, the newspaper reported.

In a videotape made by Bright-Fishbein’s captors and released to Reuters, Bright-Fishbein, wearing a traditional Jewish skullcap, said in Arabic, “If the prisoners are not released, they will execute me,” Reuters reported, adding that though it is uncommon for an Israeli Jew to speak Arabic, Bright-Fishbein is fluent in the language.

Though Bright-Fishbein was wearing a skullcap in the videotape, he told The Herald he is “a secular Jew and did not travel to Nablus wearing a kippah.”

Reports of the kidnapping initiated what Israeli news sources described as a “frantic manhunt” by Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian security forces. Bright-Fishbein was handed over to Israeli authorities about 12 hours after he was abducted. His expedient release was possibly due to the fact that he is an American citizen and not an Israeli citizen, Israeli defense officials told Haaretz.

“In the end, I got the impression that they were in over their heads and they were going crazy talking on the phone,” Bright-Fishbein told Israeli reporters. “They clearly had no idea what they were doing. They were not organized.”

University policy currently does not give academic credit for programs located in countries on the U.S. Department of State travel warning list, including Israel, but Director of International Programs and Associate Dean of the College Kendall Brostuen said some students take a leave of absence from the University and enroll at programs not approved by Brown, hoping to receive academic credit retroactively.

The Brown Corporation revised the policy in March to allow travel to countries on the warning list, effective for the Fall 2006 semester, if students and their parents sign a supplemental waiver in addition to the existing waiver required from all students studying abroad.

Bright-Fishbein told The Herald his experience should not be an example of why foreigners should avoid travel in the West Bank. “I still firmly believe … visiting a place so fraught with misunderstanding is the only way to move beyond the conventional wisdom that contributes to the continuation of the conflict,” he wrote.

He added, “I am lucky to be alive and am sorry to have put my friends and family through this ordeal.”