Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Welcome back Alan
I didn't sleep a wink last night, but I'm not tired. After a night of anxiety and drama, the BBC's Alan Johnston is finally free.
For 115 days, (the BBC says it was 114 days because they don't count the day he went missing. I suspect if you ask Alan he wouldn't discount that one day as a hostage,) those of us who know Alan have been fretting over his kidnapping and looking forward to some good news.
I knew something was afoot Monday when CNN's Gaza producer Talal Abu Rahmeh told me Hamas forces had closed off the Gaza City neighborhood of Sabra, where it was widely believed Alan was being held. Talal said Hamas troops were stopping and checking the identity of everyone entering and leaving the area. And on Tuesday night, he said Hamas had increased their military presence in Sabra, and that "something" was about to happen.
Throughout Tuesday evening and into early Wednesday, I made and received dozens of phone calls to and from Gaza. And even though the signs increasingly looked positive, I knew that hopes had been raised before only to be dashed. On June 16, just two days after Hamas decisively defeated Fatah in Gaza, I spent the day at the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel, having been told by Hamas leaders Alan would be released "within hours." But hours turned into days, and days were turning into weeks.
Then, on June 24, the kidnappers released a disturbing video in which a clearly distressed Alan was shown wearing what he called an explosives vest. He warned his captors would detonate the bomb if Hamas made any attempt to free him by force, turning his cell into a "death zone." The captors' statements became increasingly shrill and threatening, sparked heightened anxiety over Alan's fate.
All the while, though, we knew Hamas was eager to bring his kidnapping to an early end. Hamas wanted to resolve the Johnston kidnapping not wholly out of altruistic motivations. Much has been said and written about Hamas' desire to project an image of law and order. But they also consider the pro-Fatah Daghmoush clan, out of which the Army of Islam was formed, the single biggest obstacle to complete control of Gaza.
My contacts there say sooner or later Hamas will move against the Daghmoush. Furthermore, Hamas leaders are worried the Army of Islam represents the thin end of al Qaeda's wedge, and are determined to eradicate it, not because they've suddenly signed on to President George W. Bush's so-called global War on Terror, but rather out of a Machiavellian desire not to be outflanked politically.
The often scorching heat of Gaza's complicated politics shows no sign of cooling off.
But the ordeal of Alan Johnston is over, and amazingly he seems to have emerged in surprisingly good shape. When I spoke to him on the phone early in the morning Wednesday, he sounded positively giddy. "I'm so glad to be free," he gushed. "It was a nightmare, and I didn't think it would ever end."
Despite occasional threats to kill him, his captors seem to have treated him relatively well, all things considered. His captivity was certainly easier compared to the ordeal endured by some of the western hostages held in Lebanon during the 1980s and early 1990s, some of whom were kept chained to the wall for years in cramped, dark, closets.
Alan, on the other hand, was provided with a radio and thus could listen to the World Service of the BBC. He was fully aware of all the dramatic developments going on in Gaza, and more importantly, Alan told me, was his ability to hear on the BBC that his friends and colleagues both inside Gaza and outside, hadn't forgotten about him, and were agitating and pressing for his release.
I'm thrilled you're out, Alan. Take some time off, please. Unwind. Enjoy your freedom. Try to get Gaza out of your head. I know how hard that can be. I was shot in Gaza, watched, stunned, as CNN producer Riyadh Ali was kidnapped before my eyes.
Just last week I huddled against a wall as bullets zinged around me. And still I keep going back. The temptation to return to a place where the story is raw but real is intense. There is nothing Paris Hilton about Gaza. But resist the strange attraction of Gaza for a while. You've invested far more sweat and stress than I have there. But in the end you probably will be drawn back. Gaza's like that.
From Ben Wedeman, CNN Jerusalem Correspondent
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