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(photo credit: Channel 2)
Benjamin Bright-Fishbein, the Hebrew University student who was abducted in Nablus on Saturday and subsequently released, is leaving Israel Wednesday to study in China for two months.
Speaking on the eve of his departure, Bright-Fishbein said he had been incredibly foolish to travel to Nablus alone, and felt himself very fortunate to have emerged from the kidnapping ordeal unscathed.
"I wanted to see Nablus," he said Tuesday, speaking outside the Reznik dorms at the Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus, where he has been living for the past semester. "It seemed like an interesting place to go."
Bright-Fishbein, 20, a former Jerusalem Post intern, said he had been unaware before heading to Nablus on Saturday of the blast on a Gaza beach the previous day that killed seven people. Had he known, he said, he might have felt it prudent not to head into the West Bank.
Bright-Fishbein's Nablus experience lasted about 12 hours from beginning to end. He made his way to the city on Arab buses, starting off from Damascus Gate in east Jerusalem and transferring in Ramallah. He traveled alone, and decided en route that if anyone asked him his name he'd tell them he was "Daoud Bright" in the hope that they wouldn't think he was Jewish.
"Daoud could be a Protestant name, and Bright is Catholic," he said, adding that the kidnappers - a group of men, led by "Ahmed" - apparently believed the false name but still thought he was Jewish. "They were calling me 'Daoud' right up until they let me go," he said.
On arrival in Nablus at around 3:00 p.m., he decided to visit a coffee shop. While he smoked a water pipe, he was approached by the men, who sat down surrounding him. Ahmed, the evident leader, carried a gun, he said.
"I didn't want to talk to him, but I couldn't really do anything about it," said Bright-Fishbein. He said that Ahmed was convinced he was an Israeli Jew despite his assumed name and the New York State driver's license he was carrying. He said the kidnappers "didn't really read English" and therefore could not make out his real name on the license.
And although Bright-Fishbein had studied some Arabic in Cairo, he said he "couldn't understand Ahmed's Arabic."
Bright-Fishbein was not carrying his American passport, something he described as "a blessing and a curse." If he'd had his passport with him, he said, the kidnappers might have made more of an effort to verify his identity, which could have been problematic. On the other hand, he had no way of proving his American citizenship, something that might have shortened his captivity.
Bright-Fishbein was reluctant to give all the details of his kidnapping, which ended after it became clear that he was an American citizen whose abduction was deemed illadvised. "It was traumatic," he said. "I want to put as much distance between myself and what happened as possible."
However, he said that in some ways the experience felt empowering in retrospect. "There were points where I felt like I was in control," he said.
He said the first thing he did after being delivered to the Hawara checkpoint outside Nablus at 3:00 a.m. on Sunday was to call his father in America, who was unaware of his kidnapping. "I'm glad that he could hear it first from me, and that the first thing I could tell him was that I was safe," he said.
Bright-Fishbein is leaving Israel Wednesday to study Chinese at Peking University in Beijing for two months. His parents are to meet him there, and he plans to return to Brown University in Rhode Island this fall to complete his undergraduate degree.
He said his experience had left him edgy and nervous. "I don't want to be around Arabs for a while," he said, though he didn't rule out the possibility of living in an Arab country in the future.
He advised other students not to follow his example, at least for the time being. "Don't go right now," he said.
Looking back, Bright-Fishbein seemed humbled by his experiences. "I did a stupid, stupid thing," he said. "I was very, very lucky" to emerge safely.
Bright-Fishbein also said that he was involved Tuesday in an Israeli security operation trying to arrest people connected to his kidnappers.
Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby confirmed that an Arab taxi driver from east Jerusalem was detained Tuesday on suspicion of involvement in the kidnapping affair as well as unlawful possession of Bright-Fishbein's camera and cell phone. However the taxi driver was later released when it was found that he had no connection to the kidnapping.
Bright-Fishbein said that he was woken in his dormitory room at 8:00 a.m. by an "Israeli security officer" who told him that the kidnappers wanted to return his cellular phone and camera, and that there was a concern that they might try and plant a bomb in one of the devices. Bright-Fishbein said he was told to give directions to a cab driver who would deliver the package to him.
When the cab driver got out to meet him outside the Reznik buildings, he was arrested, Bright-Fishbein said. "The cab driver was yelling at me, saying that I had told the police he was a terrorist," he said. "It was a really stressful experience."
His camera and cellular phone were eventually returned to him; the camera was missing its memory card. The taxi driver told police that he had been given Bright-Fishbein's possessions by a group of Palestinians in Nablus and was on his way to return them.