Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Welcome back Alan

Alan Johnston

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
If it's so irresistable and real, why not live there, instead of darting in for pictures and interviews and then retreating to the safety provided by the Israeli gov't in Jerusalem? Perhaps you could have a more genuine experience of Gazan hospitality, like your BBC colleague, and your reporting would reflect the brutal reality that exists?
Welcome back Alan, indeed. After reporting for years how the poor, innocent Palestinians are being oppressed by the bad Israelis, never bothering to see or try to understand the Israeli side, Alan was kidnapped. Ungrateful your friends, aren't they?

When will you report welcome back Ron Arad? Or Goldwasser?Or Regev?Or Shalit?

from the amount of reporting on their fate, compared to the one on Alan, it is clear that you just do not care!!!
The above commentator clearly doesn't know who the author of this excellent article is. After Alan, Ben has probably spent more time in Gaza than any other correspondent. He knows Gaza's hospitals very well, having been to one not as a journalist, but as a patient after being shot by the Israelis. He isn't the type to run back to what the commentator calls the safety of Jerusalem.
What? Ben's reporting DOES reflect the brutal reality in Gaza. You should know who you're talking about!
Ben Wedeman has said it all extremely well for all of us. Congratulations to Alan Johnston on his safety and thank you to both men for their caring and insightful coverage of Gaza.
I am thrilled Alan, an excellent journalist, has been freed, and thanks Ben for this article. The Israelis who are held by Hamas and Hizbulla are prisoners of war. Israel is at war with its neighbours. Alan Johnston is a civilian, unarmed, a jouranlist. You just cant compare the two cases. Israel isnt innocent, as anyone who looks at the records of the last 60 years can tell.
If Ben was in a Gaza hospital after being shot, he probably would not be with us any more!!
I see Mark, when you carry out a raid across a border into the undisputed territory of another country, kill a few civilians and soldiers and kidnap a few soldiers, that is called "taking prisoners of war" in your book.

How ignorant can you get?
Your kidnapped soldiers is your problem, not the international with it and stop whining!!. Perhaps a bit of Middle Easter hospitality (instead of bombs) with your own neighbors is not such a bad idea! A tough concept for Foreign Settlers to acquire I suppose!
Dear disenchanted commentators; It is also worth asking if the brutal reality that exists in Gaza is a result of decades of forceful occupation? Deliberate economic deprivation? Intentional human isolation? Excessive brutal punishment by an Israeli army (to those who rebel this inadequate miserable existence Israel indirectly imposed on). As a result, no one expects a Boy Scout image radiating from a ghetto-like existence!. Chaos is what you get!. Interestingly, while Israel is reaping the benefits of billions of U.S. economic aid (yes, our tax money) poured annually into its tiny nation,.(the size of a pea on the world atlas), we hear yet more voices of disenchantment and mockery about an honest and exceptional reporting, (thanks to Ben), and an attitude of utter disgust towards a group of people who seem to be regarded as nothing but… nuisance. Get a grip will you….
The temptation to return to a place where the story is raw but real is intense

Oh really, Ben. May I suggest Sderot during a Kassam attack? Let's see if you still call them "crude" when they fall a few meters from you!!
Welcome back, Alan. Sorry you had to go through such a horrifying ordeal in order to get the world's attention, but your news conference after your release with your understanding of and compassion for the great majority of Palestinians and their desparate needs did more for the Palestinian cause then another three years reporting in Gaza could have done. Thank you for that.

Ben--Your reporting from the fielf is a gift to those of us living safe and comfortable lives. Raise your spirit higher than the insults born of ignorance that may be posted or otherwise come your way. Your work is undeserving of them.
I could care less whether a journalist's reporting appears to be slanted in favor of Palestinians or not - I'm just glad that a least this time the hostage came home.

Here's hoping that Mr. Johnston will thoroughly enjoy his regained freedom and that it can stay that way for him.

Best of wishes to him and...

Welcome home!
"It is also worth asking if the brutal reality that exists in Gaza is a result of decades of forceful occupation?"

And where were you bleeding heart liberals when Egypt occupied the Gaza strip and Jordan occupied the West Bank, incarcerating, oppressing and killing (black September, remember?).

You only know one thing, Israel is to blame for all woes of the Middle east and don't confuse me with facts.

Well, the fact is that when we want to try and get back our kidnapped soldiers (our problem, as you say), you whine and cry for the poor civilians that get hurt in the process, but when the poor Pals send hundreds of rockets across the border into soveriegn Israeli territory, hitting schools, shopping centers etc (all of course legtimate non-civilian and military targets), you are silent.

When Hizbullah attacks across an internationally recognized border and sends more rockets into Israel during a single months than the Nazis sent to London during all of the Blitz, you are silent. But when we respond as any nation under attack would have done, you whine and complain.

When half of Poland is occupied by Russia, and Danzig and Breslau are occupied by Poland, not to speak about the illegal occupation of New Mexico and California, you do not ask anybody to return territory, but if Israel is attacked by three Arab nations and commits the terrible crime of defending herself and winning the war, Israel is asked to retreat, a demand not made from anybody else after wars.

These are the facts and you are hypocrites. I do not know how you sleep at night after you argued during the day as you do.

And a final word on your hypocricy, dear Europeans who are so quick to attack the USA on practically everything. If not the USA, the third Reich would rule you now, if not the USA, your economies would not exist. A little humility would really be called for before you criticize others with slogans, false "facts" and hate for others who dare to refuse to be wiped off the map.
I cannot imagine that any journalist covering Gaza and hoping to return there would dare to report anything that could be perceived as anti-Palestinian or worse still pro-Israeli.For all those who don't get the point, in Palestinian controlled areas freedom of speech, and for that matter opinions,are highly regulated and if not liked will meet a brutal end. However in Israel freedom of speech is rampant and if anything could do with a bit of control. You cannot blame this difference on any occupation, strangulation or other colourful adjective. Under these conditions how can there be such a thing as balanced reporting and how can the world get a realistic picture?
Why is the name 'anonymous' suddenly so popular? These people are no different than the individuals who appear on our screens with their faces covered.
Accuratley said Ben. It's great to see Alan released. There are may journalist,volunteers, reporters, even holiday makers and many more that have been kindnapped but never made it back home. There was no certainty that Alan was going to come back to us alive but it's an absolute joy that he has. Take a year long break from the world Alan, live on a farm by the sea and buy some sheep and a few sheep dogs rear them and live happily ever after. :-) Good Luck Alan
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