LOS ANGELES – Two University of California students deported from Israel after trying to provide humanitarian aid to armed Palestinians during a church standoff in Bethlehem said they were only trying to protect them from injury or arrest.
Robert O’Neill, a 21-year-old UC Berkeley student from Claremont, and Nauman Zaidi, a 26-year-old UC Riverside student from Rancho Cucamonga, returned to the United States on Monday.
The two students were among 10 pro-Palestinian activists who rushed past Israeli soldiers earlier this month and joined Palestinians who sought refuge in the church.
Both men said they were trying to end the seige peacefully and not prolong it.
“We saw it as almost black and white,” said O’Neill, who spoke with the Los Angeles Times in a recent phone interview. “Regardless of anyone’s political views, these people were starving. They were suffering and somebody had to do something.”
Israeli officials believe the students’ actions risked the lives of other people inside the church and helped militant Palestinians.
“They broke Israeli law, they aided terrorists in what became a major standoff, and they put at risk the lives of innocent people,” said David Douek, spokesman for the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles. “It’s a serious offense; it’s not like they were shoplifting.”
Zaidi and O’Neill were removed from the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank on May 10 as the standoff between armed Palestinians and Israeli soldiers ended after 39 days. Both spent more than two weeks in Israeli custody following the end of the siege.
Zaidi and O’Neill were studying in Egypt when they entered the church. UC officials said the two have been dropped from the overseas program for violating the university’s rules by putting themselves in danger. Both men said they plan to return to their home campuses this fall to complete their undergraduate degrees.
Zaidi said he learned on his trip that both Israelis and Palestinians want peace but they have been unable to reach common ground.
“It’s sad. Both people want peace, but they’re scared of each other, for obvious reasons. They don’t know how to get there. We were trying to help,” he said.
O’Neill hopes to work for the U.S. State Department and try to change the country’s policy in the Middle East.
“I think I could initiate a lot of change,” he said. “If every American just knew the realities on the ground over there, about what happens to the Palestinians under occupation, I think the U.S. policy would change tomorrow.”