6 - 12 June 2002
Issue No.589
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

'Our heroes'

Although the Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity is over, the battle continues for two American activists. Dena Rashed reports

Robert O'Neil, 21, and Nauman Zaidi, 26, are two American students who came to Egypt to study at the American University in Cairo (AUC) as part of the University of California's Education Abroad Programme (EAP).

During the Israeli siege of Bethlehem in April, O'Neil and Zaidi decided to go to the occupied territories in solidarity with the Palestinians. "I did not know how we were going to help them in their resistance against the Israeli occupation, but when we arrived in the occupied territories we discovered that there was a lot that we could do." In the territories, the students joined the International Solidarity Movement [ISM] -- a non-violent voluntary organisation dedicated to assisting Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Like other foreign activists, O'Neil and Zaidi escorted Palestinian ambulances to provide protection and delivered food to those most in need of it. "We wanted the world to know the truth about the Israeli aggression," O'Neil told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview from his home in New York city.

The two students were among the group of 10 activists of various nationalities who entered the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem a few days before the end of its 39-day siege by the Israeli army. Their main goal was to deliver food and medicine to those held inside.

"We failed on our first attempt to get into the church since the people inside did not know we were coming and they were afraid that if they opened the doors they would be shot by Israeli snipers," Zaidi told the Weekly.

Although the activists' second attempt to enter the church proved more challenging than their first because the Israeli soldiers were paying more attention to the assorted foreigners near the compound, the people inside had been notified about the activists trying to reach them, Zaidi explained.

By the time the group of activists had managed to enter the church, food was running dangerously low, and those who had taken refuge there were subsisting on leaves, salt, oil, and water. "We were greeted with open arms, mainly because everyone inside thought the rest of the world had forgotten about them," Zaidi said. "They were also curious to know why we as Americans cared about them, and they were so receptive, they treated us like family," O'Neil said.

O'Neil continued that the activists had wanted to drive the point home for the international community that the people who had taken refuge in the church were not armed militants, but civilians. "Even the 13 people who were described as 'wanted militants' [later deported to several European countries] were very friendly. It is hard to understand why a man with a gun defending his own land is called a terrorist," O'Neil added. "In my opinion they were heroes fighting the most sophisticated military power in the Middle East."

With the lifting of the 39-day siege, all of the foreign nationals who had been inside the church were arrested by the Israeli army. Zaidi and O'Neil were subsequently held for 20 days in an Israeli prison, during which O'Neil claims "The American consulate in Israel did not make sufficient efforts to get us released." Israel subsequently deported O'Neil and Zaidi, whose families were forced to pay the students' airfare to New York.

Although O'Neil and Zaidi were charged with violating a military zone, Bethlehem is in Zone A of the occupied territories which is under the PA's jurisdiction, meaning that Israel did not have the legal jurisdiction to arrest the pair. "So there were no grounds for detaining us," O'Neil said.

The two students went on a hunger strike to protest their detention when they were in Massiyahu prison in the Israeli city of Ramle. They were later transferred to Nitzan prison, a maximum security facility also located in Ramle. Neither O'Neil nor Zaidi were allowed to make telephone calls from the facilities.

"The Israelis put me in a cell with a number of Israeli criminals. At first I did not tell them what I had been charged with, but the guards put my life at risk by telling them I was a member of Hamas," O' Neil said, describing his experience at Nitzan. He believes that given the circumstances, he was lucky to leave the prison unscathed. The intervention of an influential Palestinian prisoner at the same facility led to O'Neil being moved from the cell with inmates incarcerated on criminal charges on his last day in detention.

The students' problems have not ended with their deportation. While O'Neil and Zaidi were still in detention they received notice from the EAP programme informing them that they had been dismissed. "There was a document that we signed at the University of California before coming to Egypt which states that it was not recommended that we visit Israel or the occupied territories, and if we decided to do so, then our university would not be held liable for anything that should happen to us," Zaidi said. "So we have not violated UC's policy, meaning that they do not have any reason to dismiss us," O'Neil said, explaining that he and Zaidi understood that their visit was at their "own risk".

In spite of the hassles O'Neil and Zaidi experienced, neither regrets supporting the Palestinian cause. "I believe that we did not do enough, and that what we did was not special, because it was not a mistake to risk our lives for what we believe in. It is simply a moral question," O'Neil said. He may believe that what he and the other foreign nationals did was not special, but many others believe that their actions were very brave. "They are our heroes," said Samia Mehrez, who is in charge of the UC programme at AUC.

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