Palestinian Gunmen Hand Over Abducted American Citizen to IDF

Fatah armed group in Nablus earlier claimed to have kidnapped an Israeli resident of Jerusalem.

Members of an armed Fatah militia which claimed to have kidnapped an Israeli Saturday transferred the individual in question, a U.S. citizen, to the custody of the Palestinian Authority before dawn Sunday.

The PA security forces subsequently handed the American over to the Israel Defense Forces. Defense officials believe once the militants discovered the person was indeed an American citizen, they took steps to end the matter quickly.

"Apparently, the kidnappers did not want to end up like Zarqawi," a defense official said.

Earlier Saturday, the IDF and the Shin Bet security service investigated a Palestinian claim that an Israeli citizen was abducted in Nablus. Fatah activists sent a tape to the Reuters News Agency, claiming it showed an Israeli, Benjamin Bright-Fishbein, of Jerusalem. They threatened to kill him if Israel did not free Palestinian prisoners.

Fishbein was snatched by gunmen while having coffee at a Nablus coffeeshop, said Rafa Roagbe, head of Palestinian security in the city.

Fishbein, who spent time in Cairo and is currently studying at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, went to Nablus as a tourist, Roagbe said. Fishbein wears a traditional Jewish skullcap, but does not speak Hebrew, he added.

Palestinian security forces worked with the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group linked to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party, to find and negotiate Fishbein's release, Roagbe said.

"We brought him to the Hawara checkpoint and the head of the Israeli security ... received him," Roagbe said.

The army confirmed Fishbein had been released. Fishbein remained in police custody early Sunday, where he was being questioned about the incident, the army said.

Bright-Fishbein told Reuters that he had visited Nablus by himself because he had heard it was a beautiful place, but could find nobody else to come with him.

"It was a mistake, a really big mistake," he said, looking drawn after his ordeal.

"Everything is fine. I am in a safe place," he said.

Bright-Fishbein recounted how he had been abducted by a gunman called Ahmed who bumped into him in a coffee shop where the student, who speaks Arabic, had been smoking a water pipe.

"He (Ahmed) had a pistol, a grenade and a machinegun. I didn't want to be in his company, but it seemed I didn't have any choice at that point," Bright-Fishbein said.

For the videotaped statement, Bright-Fishbein was dressed in the skullcap of a religious Jew. Looking into the camera he said "If the prisoners are not released, they will execute me."

Reports that a hostage had been seized sparked a frantic manhunt by IDF troops and Palestinian security forces to try to track down the kidnappers.

"In the end, I got the impression that they were in over their heads and they were going crazy talking on the phone. They clearly had no idea what they were doing. They were not organized," he said.

Bright-Fishbein is a student attending Brown University in the United States. His name also appears as a contributor to the Web site of the university's student newspaper.

The figure in the video sent by Fatah activists is displaying an identity card from Hebrew University.

"The first report came in at 9 P.M. and seemed a little doubtful to us," a senior security source told Haaretz earlier Saturday night. "But toward midnight we received indications that it is a serious story. We started to relate to it as a kidnapping."

Defense officials say the Fatah military wing of Nablus, which has been involved in dozens of attacks and attempted attacks, was most likely behind the abduction.

The Shin Bet was trying to obtain information Saturday on Bright-Fishbein, and to discover whether he went to Nablus of his own volition or was secretly abducted to the city. The defense establishment has had warnings for some time of kidnappings of Israelis for the purpose of negotiating the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails - a matter of wide consensus in the territories.

About a year ago, a Hamas cell in Ramallah kidnapped an Israeli citizen, Sasson Nuriel, and murdered him after they believed they had been discovered by the security forces. Most of those involved were subsequently arrested.