Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Hostage in Gaza
Every time I hear of a kidnapping in Gaza a chill goes down my spine, and in the case of Alan Johnston, the BBC’s seasoned Gaza correspondent who disappeared a week ago, the chills are going up and down my spine the whole time.

I’ve been to Gaza more times than I can count, first in 1993, and basically several dozen times ever since. As one of CNN’s Jerusalem-based correspondents, Gaza is my beat. I know almost every inch of the place and, though conditions are often difficult, enjoy working there.

In the last three years I’ve seen Alan almost every time I’ve gone there. He was a regular at breakfast at the Dira Hotel, the journalist’s favourite Gaza haunt. Many a morning I sat with Alan and talked about Gaza’s ever-changing political landscape—which faction, which leader was up, which down. On more than one occasion we talked about the danger of kidnapping. Alan’s attitude, and mine, was usually to treat the phenomenon as an unfortunate inconvenience, as a potential danger, but something that was becoming a fact of life there. Both of us saw Gaza as an intriguing, tragic place, where for the most part we were met with generosity and openness from people who, given their circumstances, might have been expected to be hostile.

I am no stranger to kidnapping. I was with CNN producer Riyadh Ali when we were stopped by gunmen around the corner from our bureau. At the time I thought it was just another run-in with one of the many Palestinian security services. Something that would involve a lot of talk, a bit of shouting, and would end with each going his own way. This time it was different. A car pulled in front of us, stopped, and several armed men—all in their twenties, none masked—got out and, without any regard for whom might be watching, came up to the taxi. Riyadh was in the front seat, I was in the back with Cairo camerawoman Mary Rogers. One of the men came up to my window, stuck a pistol in my face and calmly but firmly asked, “which one of you is Riyadh Ali?” Before I could even open my mouth, Riyadh said “I am Riyadh.”

The man with the pistol went around to Riyadh’s side, opened the door and told him to get out. Riyadh did as he was told, was led to the car, a white Peugeot 504, got inside and was gone. I was completely dumbstruck. The entire operation didn’t last more than 40 seconds.

And then they were gone. After three seconds, I recovered and called our Jerusalem bureau. Michal Zippori, one of CNN Jerusalem’s most experienced staff members, answered the phone. “Riyadh’s been kidnapped,” I told her. She gasped. I quickly explained what had happened. Within minutes alarms bells were going off in Jerusalem, at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, and in lots of other places. Bad news always spreads fast. Within minutes, it was picked up by the news agencies, Jezira, etc. etc. My phone started to ring, and for the next few hours I had little time to do anything but explain to everyone who called what had happened.

We went back to our Gaza bureau—and stayed there all night, speaking on the phone and in person to all sorts of people—including some very shady types—trying to find out who might be holding Riyadh, where and why. I called Riyadh’s cell phone more than a hundred times in the vain hope that he would answer, but the phone was off.

By the following afternoon, we were getting indications that Riyadh would shortly be released. This was September 2004, a time when kidnappings in Gaza were rare. Alas, they’ve become so common in Gaza that they don’t have the same impact as they used to. Since then there have been at least two dozen such incidents. My friend Lorenzo Cremonesi, correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, was also kidnapped, if only for a few hours. In his case it meant sitting for several hours in a house in Deir Al-Balah, a town in central Gaza, taking notes as his abductors went through a long list of grievances against the Palestinian Authority. When I spoke to Lorenzo after he was released, he seemed surprised that anyone even noticed he had been taken.

In Riyadh’s case, his captivity was far less mundane. He was tied to a chair and blindfolded most of the time 24 hours he was held. His captors interrogated him for hours. It was a traumatic experience.

I am hoping Alan emerges from this nightmare without too many psychological scars. He is a very easy-going, soft-spoken, good-humoured, amiable person, someone who takes his job seriously and takes the time to listen to every point of view. If anyone is well-equipped to endure, it’s Alan.

Despite the dangers, thankfully everyone who has been kidnapped has, eventually, been released. The longest time in captivity was for two journalists for the American network Fox, which was two weeks.

My fingers are crossed that all Gaza kidnappings will end the same way. Because I’ve covered another kidnapping that didn’t. I was in Kandahar, Afghanistan in January 2002 when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan. I rushed with the CNN crew to Karachi, and spent several weeks there, waiting, hoping, that Pearl would soon be released, following up every possible lead. Shortly after I arrived in Karachi I interviewed his wife, Marianne, who was six-months pregnant at the time. Despite the agony of the experience, she was composed, and hopeful he would soon be released, and the signals we received, though mixed, hinted he would, possibly, be freed, and soon. But that kidnapping did not end happily.

Gaza is a small, cramped and crowded place where it’s hard to keep a secret from anyone, where everybody knows everybody. Most Gazans are aghast every time a kidnapping takes place, and few will make excuses for the kidnappers. Kidnapping goes completely contrary to traditional Arab values of generosity and kindness to strangers. But it’s become a fact of life. In recent trips, my Gazan friends have insisted, they say out of courtesy but I’ve always suspected it’s really out of concern, that they accompany me back to my hotel after work or after a get-together.

Palestinian journalists in Gaza and the West Bank have held a variety of protests since Alan was abducted, calling for his immediate release, because the fact is that most Palestinians are just as concerned, and disturbed, by the spate of kidnappings as I and other journalists who cover Gaza are.

-- From Ben Wedeman, CNN International Correspondent
Hey Ben, You write about kidnappings, but conveniently omit kidnappings of Israeli soldiers by cross-border raids. These kidnappings did not end like the ones you describe, none of the soldiers has been freed. These boys have parents, friends and loved ones too, not only you journalists do. So please!!
And they want a state of their own...They can not even run a strip!
The reporter's concerns about his colleague's kidnapping in Gaza are valid. But why is there not the same concern voiced by reporters for an Israeli soldier, kidnapped in Israel by Gazans who illegally tunneled under the Israeli border, and now held captive for almost 1 year? Is concern only reserved selfishly for reporters who chose to stay in Gaza, knowing the risks of kidnapping by Palestinian terrorists?
Journalists have empathy for their own. I didn't see any concern for the Israeli soldier Cpl. Shalit who has been kidnapped and held hostage for months. His plight is much worse.
Thank you for this heartfelt inside view of the situation.
Ben is discussing the kidnapping of an unarmed journalist.Soldiers occupying other people's land are a different story. For your information there are hundreds of palestinians who have been kidnapped by israelis- they have parents and families too.
It is obvious that there is a big problem with journalists who enter Gaza on their own free will being kidnapped their by terrorist militias and nobody who is innocently reporting the news should be kidnapped anywhere.

However, on the same token Israeli soldiers patrolling the Israeli border on the Israel side of the border should also not be kidnapped by Hamas, the ruling government in Gaza.

It is a shame that this reporter has shown almost no concern or condemnation for that activity, which has yet to be resolved, while at the same time going out of his way on behalf of CNN, when his fellow reporter is kidnapped and released and unharmed physically in under 25 hours, especially when the reporters went on their own free will into Gaza as opposed to being kidnapped from Israel into Gaza.

Please stop the double standard.
Hey Henry & Lorne. How is it that you can so audatiously compare soldiers with a journalist. I mean surely it is the right of the palestinians to defend themselves through kidnapping soldiers just like Israeli soldiers do so with civilian palestinians. This is what war is all about. So there is no comparison!
I am troubled by the fact that another journalist has been kidnapped by terrorists in Gaza. It seems as though every month reporters and photographers are kidnapped. Last week, the Head of the U.N. Aid group to Gaza was almost kidnapped in Gaza and 14 shots were fired on his clearly marked U.N. Jeep. Thank God is was a bullet proof jeep. The Palestinian Govt has failed to crack down against terrorists in Gaza and allows terrorists to do what they want in Gaza. We demand the Palestinian Authority take harsh action against terrorist groups in Gaza and guarantee the safe release of the BBC reporter and the Israeli Soldier who have been kidnapped by palestinian terrorist groups. We also demand they take the necessary steps to prevent kidnappings from occuring in the future.
Let the man share his story. It is a frightening look from a journalist perspective, because they are there in the streets where anything can happen. If Ben was an Israeli soldier, I am sure he'd share the kidnappings from his fellow colleagues as well.
I would like to see Ben Wedeman display the same courage he shows in Gaza in Israel. That is to say, if Wedeman isn't afraid of potential Palestinian kidnappers, then he shouldn't be afraid to meet Gilad Shalit's parents, and sit down to interview them. Let him meet with Jews as well as Palestinians - let him hear our side of the story too.

Though I doubt the Shalits will be as irreverant about the outcomes of 'all' kidnappings as Wedeman is.

We pray for his BBC friend, though the BBC is notorious for its anti-Israel bias and is only outdone by Al Jazeera. We pray for Alan, as we pray for Gilad, and we hope that reporters can remember to do the same.
What do Israeli soldiers have to do with this? Your point is completely irrelevant. It's not like Ben expressed his concern about a Palestinian who was kidnapped or anything. He's talking about an impartial player, a fellow journalist, a friend who was kidnapped while doing exactly what Ben does; being an observer, an active observer who is there to tell the story. Why does it always have to be about taking sides? Whatever happened to genuine concern?
"...reporters who chose to stay in Gaza..." - Alan knows the risks. Staying there while knowing the risks though, doesn't make him irresponsible as you imply. Maybe he's passionate about what he's doing. How many people are lucky enough to say they are equally passionate about what they're doing? Alan, I hope you're drinking chai with n'an'a right now and that we'll see you again from that rooftop very soon.
Kidnappings should not be a surprise, nor will they cease, as long as kidnapping is not taken to be a serious offense by Authorities, such as the PA, Fatah and Hamas. To date, there have been no charges brought against any kidnappers in the cases cited in Ben Wedeman's article. Credible governance is needed, not mere politics.
What about the countless innocent Palestinians who were forcibly removed from their homes by the Israeli's, not accepted by their Arab neighbors (except Jordan) and are now caught in the crossfire between the Muslim and the Jewish extremists. The fate of an entire population group seems more important than the kidnapping of a few individuals.
The belief that journalists and the U.N. are "impartial" demonstrates a naivity which sends chills down my spine!
The bottom line is that Reporters, Photographers, U.N. Employees and Israeli soldiers are being kidnapped by palestinian terrorists and the Palestinian authority is doing nothing to prevent it and are not punishing the terrorists. The terrorists have the freedom to do what they want and that's a huge problem. The palestinian authority behaves as they have no responsibility to curb the terror. This is wrong.
Passion, logic, politics... what a great mix!
The suffering of the individual is caused by all of them, and each of us refers to it through his/her own perspective, where obviously Israelis, with their context, may care les about a journalists forced "vacation" and its psychological effect: it has, by the way, also happened to an Israeli journalist in Gaza...
Luckily for all journalists in Gaza, they're not in Iraq!
May we all pray for Alan's safe release. In a place where even Gazans are being kidnapped by fellow Gazans (I know of one man this happened to, myself), journalists have to take extra precautions. That said, hats off to those covering the situation over there. Thank you to all of them.
Well it seems from the article that most of the journalists are let go by the freedom fighters so hopefully Alan will be released soon. I am actually curious to know why they get kidnapped, we dont hear anything about ransoms or prisoner exchanges. So what is the purpose of such a crime. Do they just want to be in the news and get their message across, although I have not read of those reports either.
Ben, I'm pretty sure Alan will be much luckier than Daniel Pearl: Pearl was a Jew.
I hope he's back safe; I hope you never get into the same trouble.
What I've got no hope for at all is that one day you and your employer switch to impartial reporting from current anti-Israeli bias
I find most of these comments hilarious. I sympathize with anyone who is kidnapped , however the point is being missed by many of the comments i read here. While we have to be accomodating to all views it seems we will never be able to argue a rational point without ideology taking over. I only hope the lives of all kidnapped persons are spared even though it may not be the reality
It surprises me to see all these anti-palestinian comments when Israel kidnapped ten's of thousands palestinians and lebanese. how about reporting about Palestinians kidnapped in Israeli prisions and the brutal humiliation they suffer. Israeli's complain about one soldier when 1000's including men and women are kidnapped by the Terrorist state of Israel. CNN be fair for once. I know this comment will not be posted as previous ones.
i'm not too surprised that there are men and women in the world who believe, or believe they believe, in bringing the news to the people of the world at the risk of their own lives and that of their colleagues (drivers, interpreters etc.).

i, however, am rather incredulous at the fact that experienced, educated, intelligent, tech-savy journalists go into war zones 'practically' unprepared for the eventuality of a kidnapping.

how difficult can it be to design and, have people at risk wear, a radio transmitting device in a belt or shoe that is trackable in a kidnapping case. assuming that their kidnappers aren't travelling with a jamming device (yet).

this is the so called third millenium.


The soldier is a soldier. He is at war. It is exepected that he will be victim to such things more likely than other subjects in the city. What has a journalist to do with it? Nothing. An israeli soldier? For starters the rocks go his way. . . .

Haven't we covered enough about Shalit? I mean a war broke out for him. . . breaking news?
While I empathize with the abduction of any civilian, it should be noted that little word is given across the media about the abducted Israeli soldiers.

Isn't anyone asking what ever happened to these people? Or is there continued detention of little use to left wing media like CNN?

I trully hope that your comrade comes home safe and in one piece. But let's not adorn sainthood on the real criminals, those responsible for abducting this hard working dedicated individual to start with.
The desire to seek a story within a story is always strong. However, trying to link this story to Israeli (or Palestinian) kidnappings is rather cumbersome. That is an entirely different issue. Ben is offering a perspective of journalists in the field, not commenting on the far different issue of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Thanks for the perspective Ben. Always interesting to hear how you folks do your jobs.
It's interesting that when speaking of all the kidnapping done in Gaza, not one word about the kidnapping of the young Israeli soldier who is still being held prisoner.
The occupation of Palestinian lands is a complex subject, the Israeli supporters' claim to have "won the right through war" to occupy the land, justifies war as a means of legalizing territorial theft. Apparently the phrase "never again" only applies to those who claim to be Jews, but its ok for Israel to do it to the victims of Palestinian occupation.

Ariel Sharon's comment to a university in Israel that "We own the US government, and the US knows it" was never reported in the western media, and this suggests that Mr. Sharon's remark can be taken as evidence that the US and her allies are pro Israel.

The western media's tendance to echo the government line, as proved in the propaganda campaign leading to the illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, makes them organs of states hostile to the right of colonial resistance, and therefore aiding and abetting the invaders and occupiers.

Whether or not we agree with the positions of the players in this tragic game, the propagandists are also enemy combatants, their weapon is public disinformation. Kidnapping enemy combatants is a tactic used by the US, but that's deemed ok, because we call the resisters terrorists, and the media reports this as fact.

When the western media adopts a truly neutral stand, and reports just the facts, unbiased by the political slant of their owners, then the Palestinians will see a need for their continued presence, and the kidnappings will diminish greatly. Probably not stop completely because of the opportunity to take advantage of anarchy for purely criminal reasons, but at least it will no longer be condoned by the political movement.
Ah, for Pete's sake, here we go again!.....Can Ben Wedeman write objectively about his personal experiences and express some concern for a fellow journalist without the need to inject cynicism remarks ?...And how did the Israeli soldier got weaved into this? Haven't your Bombs done enough destroying Lebanon, slaughtering civilians by the 100's, wounded innocents by the 1000's, polluting the Mediterranean by raiding an electrical power plant causing an oil spill, leading to an environmental disaster! Then ending this "ruthless bravado" by dropping 1m cluster bomblets in civilian areas...All in the name of the kidnapped soldiers!.

A commentator above is daring Ben Wedeman to interview the parents of the Israeli soldier. The parents of the Israeli soldiers were interviewed and paraded on American TV's all summer long. Yes, painful seeing their faces and hearing their plea, just as it would be painful listening to any Palestinian parent pleading for their sons, given the chance.

There are only a handful of Journalist around like Ben Wedeman who put themselves in dire situations in order to put a humane face on agony, grief, anguish, torment, misery and distress caused the cruelty of occupation. Why is it when one attempts to humanize the Palestinian people, others are compelled to grinch?
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