Benjamin Bright-Fishbein, the American Jewish student and former Jerusalem Post intern who was abducted in Nablus on Saturday night, and then released, made his decision to go in spite of strong warnings by the American government, who advice against all unnecessary travel to the West Bank.
But his choice was not unusual - a swelling stream of travelers, activists and human rights workers judge the risks differently, and are opting to visit towns and cities in the Palestinian Authority.
An increasing number of Western travelers come here "not just to see Israel, but to see 'Israel-Palestine,'" said Jeff Halper, coordinator for the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions. "For them, to be in Tel Aviv and not going to Nablus is not seeing the whole picture."
Halper, whose work regularly takes him to areas of the West Bank that are considered dangerous by the IDF and the US State Department, said he felt "absolutely safe traveling" there. "Things can always happen, but they can happen in Minneapolis," he said.
Jeff Morency, 23, a research fellow from the University of Minnesota working in Ramallah, agreed. He has visited Nablus in the past and, despite the danger of what he termed "isolated incidents," said "I don't think twice" about going to the West Bank.
But Halper and Morency both warned that visiting the West Bank can be dangerous, especially if travelers are unprepared or unaware of the local culture. Morency said that he dresses more conservatively and tries to be respectful toward a culture in financial crisis. When traveling, he said, he always takes contact numbers of volunteers and international organizations in the area. "It's important to plan ahead and to know people, as it is when you're traveling in any new area," he said.
Halper pointed out that Bright-Fishbein put himself in danger when he visited Nablus without contacts and without people knowing why he was there.
"Had he contacted someone and met up with them for a cup of coffee, everything would have been fine," he said. "We generally go with Palestinians, and they always know that we're coming. We don't just go wandering around by ourselves."
Students at the Hebrew University echoed Halper's sentiment.
"I would never go on my own without a purpose," said a Turkish-Israeli student in the university's preparatory Mechina program for new immigrants, who asked to remain anonymous. "I've been to Ramallah twice but I am always going to meet [specific] people," he said, adding: "I would go back again, but not how [Bright-Fishbein] did."
Despite the first kidnapping of an American citizen in the West Bank, the United States Embassy said that it was not planning to change the wording of its travel warning for the area. But Stewart Tuttle, spokesman for the embassy, was critical of Bright-Fishbein's actions.
"We discourage people to do what he did for the very reasons that came to pass in his case," he said. "Clearly the warning is there for a reason."
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