'Gaza kidnappings are a fact of life'

Every time I hear of a kidnapping in Gaza, a chill goes down my spine. I’ve been to Gaza more times than I can count, first in 1993, and basically several dozen times ever since.

In the past 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. 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.

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. 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 lasted no more than 40 seconds.

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.

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.

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.

Abducted BBC journalist Alan Johnston Alan Johnston, the BBC’s main correspondent in Gaza, was kidnapped on 12 March. His abductors intercepted his car and forced him to go with them. No group has claimed responsibility for the abduction.

Jonathan Baker, the BBC’s deputy head of newsgathering, told Press Gazette: “We haven’t had any direct contact at all with anybody since he disappeared eight days ago.

When the Fox person was taken last year I don’t think they had any direct contact right to the moment he was released, and that’s partly because we suspect the motives of whoever might have him are not necessarily complaining about the BBC or him personally, and that this is part of a wider game within the Palestinian community.

“The place is full of rumour and we’ve had all sorts of reports. We have as many feelers out as we can – not just in Gaza, but in Jerusalem, Cairo and in London, but we’ve had no direct contact with anyone who might be holding him and certainly no demands have been made or no indication to us to what they might want. All we are doing is trying to maintain the focus of people’s attention on trying to get him and doing what ever we can to bring that about.”

Some 14 foreign journalists have been kidnapped in the Gaza Strip since August 2005.

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