A 2005 Elliott School graduate was kidnapped in the West Bank Wednesday and released later that day.
Ansar Assuna – a previously unknown militant Palestinian group – told Reuters wire service that it kidnapped an American student in Nablus, West Bank, a State Department spokesperson told The Hatchet Wednesday evening. The news agency reported that the group abducted Michael Phillips, 24, as leverage for the release of imprisoned Palestinian women and minors. Reuters stated that the Palestinian gunmen unconditionally freed him late Wednesday night Israeli time, without providing a reason for the release.
“I’m fine, and I’m happy that this incident is over,” Phillips told Reuters. Asked if he was abused, he said, “Nothing like that happened.”
Phillips, of Mandeville, La., teaches English to underprivileged Palestinian children in the West Bank as part of Project Hope, a humanitarian organization. He has been in Israel since leaving D.C. in June 2006.
Phillips’ father, William Phillips, said his son was intrigued by the politics and social issues of the region.
“He was particularly interested in the Middle Eastern area, and he also always had an interest in humanitarian efforts,” his father said. “(Michael is there to) promote good will understanding to different nationalities.”
The graduate’s family is “just elated” that he was safely released, his father added. “(We’re) much relieved, and that’s about it.”
William Phillips said his son told him that he was blindfolded and bound but not harmed during his abduction, which he said lasted more than 36 hours. The father said he is not sure if his son will return home soon.
The American embassy in Israel called him early Wednesday morning to tell him his son had been kidnapped, William Phillips said.
Reuters reported that Ansar Assuna said the abduction was done to “confront the American war on Islam.” William Phillips said the kidnappers would not get their message across by abducting a humanitarian worker.
“Michael was – is – there strictly to help the local people … not only does he not represent a threat, but represents the type of person who is their best hope to gain understanding in the international community,” William Phillips said. “So they’re actually harming their own interests instead of helping.”
Michael Phillips’ father, mother and grandparents waited Wednesday for more information to come from the U.S. embassy and Project Hope officials.
“We’re worried sick,” William Phillips said before his son was released. “Obviously it’s early in the process, so we’re very optimistic … we’re just waiting for now.”
University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg was monitoring the situation throughout the day and said he was relieved the alumnus was freed.
“I’m glad that it all worked out,” Trachtenberg said in a phone interview Wednesday evening. “I hope he doesn’t lose his faith and continues to live up to the aspirations we have for GW students.”
Earlier in the day, Trachtenberg said the University’s “hearts and prayers” went out to the Phillips’ relatives.
“It’s like a big family, like one of your children in trouble,” he said of the kidnapping. “There’s not much else you can do from a distance, but try to be supportive of the family and keep your fingers crossed.”
2006 graduate Katie Carguilo, who was Phillips’ roommate for two years in a Cleveland Park apartment, was relieved to hear her friend was safely released.
“I’m really, really happy for Michael, and I hope that he comes home and that I get to see him soon,” she said Wednesday evening. “I’m very happy that it ended peacefully.”
Carguilo said Phillips was no stranger to living in the Middle East. She said he previously traveled to Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, and has been happily living in the West Bank for the past four and a half months.
Senior Marisha Pe?a, who took several classes with Phillips in her sophomore year, said they stayed in touch over the summer.
“He was really happy; he was really glad doing what he was doing,” Pe?a said. “He said people were really friendly there … (and) he felt safe.”