Monday, April 23, 2007
Alan Johnston: six weeks missing
It is now six weeks since the BBC’s Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston was kidnapped. Six weeks. And still, after all that time, we know almost nothing about who kidnapped Alan, why he was kidnapped, or what their demands are.
Last week a previously unknown group, the Brigades of Tawheed (Monotheism) and Jihad, claimed it had killed Alan. Since then we’ve heard Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas say his security officials have information indicating the claim was false. My sources in Gaza say the same. I hope they're right.
In the meantime, the Saudi-backed London Arabic daily, Asharq Al-Awsat, has published a report that Alan’s kidnappers want $5 million for his release.
The fact is, after six weeks we hardly know more about Alan’s abduction than we did the day he disappeared on March 12.
What is clear is that all the old rules of Gaza kidnappings have been broken. Before Alan, the longest kidnapping there was two weeks, when a correspondent and cameraman working for the US satellite network, Fox, were abducted.
Gaza has now become a no-go zone for foreign reporters, according to the Jerusalem-based Foreign Press Association (FPA). This Wednesday, the FPA will organise a rally at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza to call for Alan’s release. Two weeks ago, the BBC enlisted its rivals in international news broadcasting, CNN, Sky, ITN and Jazeera English, to take part in a joint programme for the same purpose.
But the kidnappers, whoever they may be, aren’t watching.
Not that people in Gaza are indifferent to Alan’s plight. Quite to the contrary. A group of his friends in Gaza have set up a web page (www.free-alan.com) where messages of support for Alan are posted. Alan’s Palestinian friends and colleagues in Gaza recently gathered at the Palestinian Legislative Council to protest the Palestinian Authority’s failure to win his freedom. Scuffles broke out with the police and several of the journalists were beaten. Palestinian journalists in Gaza, and ordinary Gazans, realise as long as Alan is held captive, coverage of Gaza by international news organisations will be drastically cut back.
Many people there I speak with have a list of suspects they believe may have a hand in Alan’s abduction. The list includes prominent clans and prominent politicians, some well known to me. I won’t name them simply because there is no hard evidence indicating where guilt truly lies.
But I do fear Gaza is gradually becoming the latest addition to a list of territories and countries where westerners are no longer safe, like Somalia, like Iraq (outside the so-called Green Zone and the Kurdish north), like much of Afghanistan, etc.
Many in Gaza will tell you they feel the world has turned its back on them. It began with the collapse of the Middle East peace process in September 2000 and was finalised when Palestinians voted Hamas into office in January 2006. The Bush administration and the European Union cut off financial assistance to the now-Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority, and boycotted it diplomatically. In the meantime, they’ve thrown their lot behind the politically weakened president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is widely seen as an American puppet.
If the world has turned its back on Gaza, those holding Alan, it seems, have decided to turn their backs on the world.
-- From Ben Wedeman, CNN International Correspondent
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