When I finished teaching my English class in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Nablus last Tuesday, the most pressing thing on my mind was getting to an Internet cafe to check my e-mail. It’s impossible to walk the streets of this crowded city without running into someone you know. Had I realized what was in store for me that night, I might have lingered with the friends who insisted I join them for a cup of coffee.
Instead, I hurried on my way. But before I could get to the cafe, I was grabbed by two men, forced into a car and driven off.
In the car, a blanket was thrown over me and my hands were bound. After about half an hour, I was blindfolded, taken out of the car and into a room, and tied to a bed.
I didn’t know where I was or why I had been seized. I lay in the dark, picturing my parents pacing our home in Louisiana, their hearts in their throats. My kidnapping was the kind of experience they feared when they begged me not to go to the West Bank. I knew they would be panic-stricken when they heard.
But in the morning, my captors removed my blindfold, gave me food and water and told me that soon I’d be going back to my family. They spoke broken English, and I speak little Arabic, but we managed rudimentary conversations.
They asked if I wanted more water. I asked if I could sit up.
Perhaps surprisingly, I never feared for my life. I’d been teaching English in Nablus since June, and many people knew me. I was certain they would help. And they did.
After a day and a half, my captors untied me and drove me to Balata refugee camp, near Nablus. A Palestinian Legislative Council member and scores of Palestinian friends greeted me. No one knew the group claiming credit for my capture, but the police assured me they would search for them.
Why did I come to Nablus, despite my family’s pleas to stay away?
I had no connection to the region. I was born and raised near New Orleans. During a family vacation to Morocco, I became fascinated with the Middle East. I traveled to the region as often as I could and majored in international affairs at college.
My studies and travels exposed me to the Palestinians’ lack of freedom and equal rights. But I knew that to really understand it, I had to live it. And because my government supplies the massive financial and diplomatic support that makes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank possible, I wanted to see the effects of those policies firsthand.
Of course, I don’t experience the occupation like a Palestinian. They are penned into ghettoes, surrounded by Israel’s separation wall, and routinely prevented from traveling. I can move freely and can leave at any time.
But I’ve seen what the military occupation means.
It means that every aspect of your life is controlled by a foreign army. It means waiting hours in checkpoint lines, trying to get to school.
It means living under curfew, only leaving your house a few hours each week. It means watching your land taken to build homes you cannot live in and roads you cannot drive on because you are not Jewish.
It means rationing drinking water, while nearby Israeli settlements fill their swimming pools and irrigate their lawns.
Palestinians have tried every peaceful avenue to win their freedom. The United Nations passed dozens of resolutions affirming their rights; Israel simply ignores them.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that Israel’s separation wall and settlements were illegal. Construction of both continues.
After nearly four decades under occupation, some Palestinians, apparently including my captors, are driven to desperate and despicable acts. But most still believe that if Americans knew the truth about the discrimination, segregation and brutal occupation they suffer, we would try to end it, just as we worked to end apartheid in South Africa.
Most Palestinians eagerly embrace Americans like me. They are anxious to tell their story, hoping I will tell others. My kidnapping, perhaps ironically, has not diminished my resolve to do just that.
My tax dollars buy the weapons that kill Palestinian children, destroy Palestinian homes and uproot their farms.
My country is the one nation in the world with the power to right this wrong.
Our policies should promote freedom and equal rights for Palestinians, to free both peoples in this land of the desperation and hopelessness that led to my capture.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS is an American volunteer from Louisiana who teaches English in the occupied West Bank.