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Detained Mideast reporters: Captors were 'angry, frustrated'

Josh Hammer
"Newsweek" reporter Josh Hammer  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- What started as a relatively routine assignment in Gaza for two journalists turned into a four-hour waiting game that they described as a "symbolic kidnapping."

Two days after they were released unharmed, "Newsweek" reporter Josh Hammer and photographer Gary Knight spoke from CNN's Jerusalem bureau with CNN Anchor Carol Lin.

LIN: Let me begin with you, Josh. How did this unfold? What exactly happened?

HAMMER: Well, it began as an assignment. We wanted to go down and find out about the resistance movement down in Rafah, which is a town/refugee camp near the Egyptian border. And halfway through one interview, we got a phone call from a fixer/translator of ours who said, 'Hey, there's some gunmen who are willing to talk to you. Military wing.' They actually weren't identified, who they belonged to. (Audio 556 K/51 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

So we quickly ended that interview, met a guide in the center of town, were taken on foot to a small house in a refugee area very close to the Egyptian border, a couple hundred meters away from it -- there was a lot of gunfire going on, in fact, as we got to the house -- and were promptly met by four masked men with Kalashnikovs.

They started. The leader sat us down. We were allowed to interview for a while. Then he stepped out, and a few moments later our translator returned, after a brief discussion with him, and said we apparently have a bad situation. You've been kidnapped -- or we've been kidnapped -- since he was part of our group.

LIN: Gary, let me ask you this: At that time, what went through your mind? You've had wartime experience before, so I'm not sure how you perceived the situation.

KNIGHT: I have, but it was difficult to take it seriously at first, to be honest, because we'd sat through an interview for about an hour, an hour and fifteen minutes, and then they'd provided us with lunch. And the whole experience up to that time had been very calm and very relaxed. And this was almost like an afterthought. It was a very curious way, I felt at the time, to announce that you're kidnapping someone. (Audio 348 K/32 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

But the situation was very calm. They weren't aggressive. There were no difficulties. And so, you know, we just sat there really and waited for the thing to unravel.

LIN: Did either of you perceive that Yasser Arafat had prior knowledge of this?

HAMMER: No, I think it was clear these guys were operating -- or it was our perception anyway -- that they were operating on their own. I believe the Palestinian Authority when they say that they were unaware of this and that they condemn it. And I think these were just some free-lance guys who were angry, frustrated. I could be wrong. It could be part of a larger conspiracy. But it struck us as a very small group of guys who wanted to say something. (Audio 296 K/27 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

LIN: Well, Josh, yesterday Yasser Arafat was very quick to come out and say that he had nothing to do with this, that he denies any involvement.

It is a very odd situation, and I'm sure that both of you know and have heard that both sides, the Palestinians and Israelis, have accused the Western media of biases on both sides.

I'm just wondering, Josh, as an American journalist, how do people receive you there, both in Israel as well as in the Palestinian territories?

HAMMER: I would say that on the Palestinian side, I -- I get accused of bias from both sides -- which may be a good thing, that both sides are accusing me of it.

But in general, when I work in the Palestinian territories, which is quite a bit, I am very warmly received, I am welcomed. I mean, generally the Western media is embraced there.

Gary Knight
"Newsweek" photographer Gary Knight  

LIN: Is it hard to ensure balance when you're covering such an emotional conflict?

HAMMER: I think the problem for journalists based in Jerusalem such as I am is you live in Israel, you work in, and your home is in, Israel, so you tend to, because you are in Israel, see it through Israeli eyes. And there's a sort of instant empathy with the Israelis because you are living among them. So, of course, you want to try to be as objective as possible and understand the Palestinian position as well. So it's very important to get out to Palestinian territories as much as you can and spend nights there, see it from that side. It's difficult, it is.

LIN: Gary, the pictures that we traditionally see out of Israel are usually after a major gun battle, when there are lots of injuries. We have this image, or certainly I do, as I watch the pictures, of this constant presence of tanks and conflict. Is there a bigger picture for you who live there and you who capture it in pictures? Is there a bigger picture? What is it that perhaps the American audience doesn't see that you find intriguing?

KNIGHT: Well, there's much, much more than tanks and conflict, and that's really the story that we were trying to work on this week. You know, there's an ever-present fear. This story is not about Palestinian government, Israeli defense forces, and guys throwing bricks, stones and petrol bombs.

This story is really about two civilian populations living under significant fear and trauma. And the Palestinians, I think, are being ritually humiliated in Gaza, and the Israelis are terrified of getting bombed every time they go to the shops. So this is really a story about two terrified civilian populations, not about people throwing rocks and firing guns. (Audio 411 K/38 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

LIN: So what's the biggest challenge for you as a photographer in such a, frankly, very segregated population, to try to capture that very human story?

KNIGHT: Well, you just have to stick with it. If people get angry with you, if people try to deter you from working, you just have to close your ears to it, and just do what you mean to do, and try and keep an open mind, try and bear in mind that there are two sides to every story. But it's not always the case that both sides are equally to blame. You have to really step back, I think, in your mind and just try to look at the story as clearly as possible.

LIN: Josh, let me end with you on this thought. I'm wondering in the last short period, say five months, have you seen this conflict evolve in ways that maybe we have not noticed, short of the violence?

HAMMER: Well, I would just say it's been my perception since January, when I arrived -- when I moved to Israel -- really a steady progression. You see an erosion of security and a slow acceleration of the violence. It's become much more of a -- of course, it began as a popular rebellion, an uprising among the young. It's turned into a real guerrilla war. It bears more and more resemblance, as we noticed this week, to the situation in southern Lebanon that the Israelis faced. From a military point of view, anyway, it's really become that kind of a conflict, a grinding guerrilla war, which is, actually, at times quite savage.

As for the civilians, it's just a kind of increasing insecurity. I mean, insecurity was high when I arrived, but I would say that it's increased exponentially. Jerusalem is just a very tense, very frantic kind of place to live in.

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