Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Foreign Correspondents: The Perils of Covering the Gaza Strip | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat- The growing phenomenon of the targeting and kidnapping of journalists in Palestine had recently taken another turn when unknown gunmen recently kidnapped a foreign reporter working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the Gaza Strip, just a few months after the kidnapping of two journalists from the American Fox News Channel as well as the targeting of the offices belonging to the Al Arabiya news channel.

Alan Johnston was among the few foreign reporters who remained in the Gaza Strip after a series of kidnappings that had affected his colleagues more than once. All these cases of hostage-taking ended peacefully but have left fear and concern in the hearts and minds of journalists that prompted some of them to leave whilst others would only travel escorted by security teams or with local reporters and in safe locations.

Iyad Atiya, a freelance reporter working for several foreign agencies, says that foreign reporters today take strict security precautions such as traveling in cars that are not open-roofed and switching vehicles after each journey as well as changing the routes that are taken and at times avoiding certain routes altogether.

One reporter who spoke to Asharq Al Awsat on condition of anonymity stated that it is easier to obtain information about the Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit who was also kidnapped than about the BBC correspondent, Alan Johnston. He believes that Johnston may have been kidnapped by the Army of Islam group led by Mutaz Daghmash, who cannot be contacted and with whom the entire authority cannot use force because he simply does not belong to a political faction and relies on more than 13,000 armed members of his family that completely dominates an area.

An Israeli intelligence security website blamed the operation on the Army of Islam, stating that the hostage-takers were pressing the British government to push for the release of a larger number of Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal to free Shalit. However, Abu Mujahid, the spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), told Asharq Al Awsat that the PRC had been in contact with the Army of Islam on a number of occasions and the presumed parties, all of which denied that they were holding the hostage. He confirmed that at this point the responsible party and its demands are unknown. Meanwhile, he revealed that the PRC on each occasion informed the authority of the identity of the kidnappers, without the authority taking measures against them, which is tantamount to giving them permission to carry out such acts again, according to Naim Altobasi, the Chairman of the Palestinian Press Syndicate.

Altobasi expressed his disappointment with the continuation of this phenomenon. “How can we explain the continuing phenomenon of hostage-taking to the world in light of the agreement for a unity government and our complaints about the suppression practiced by the occupation?” He told Asharq Al Awsat that on several occasions he was asked embarrassing and difficult questions about the kidnappings. The Press Syndicate demanded foreign and local journalists to stage a one-day strike in protest against the continued kidnappings, stating that it was in the process of taking legal action against the Palestinian Authority over its failure to prevent the repetition of hostage operations. Altobasi asserted that the syndicate was already preparing a brief against the Palestinian Authority’s President, Prime Minister and law enforcement chiefs to oblige them to disclose the perpetrators and punish the parties that have carried out previous operations. Altobasi blamed these kidnappings on parties that sought to ruin the unity agreement and those that are instigated by the occupation—an argument that he knows is hard to sell today.

Altobasi rejects reports that Johnston was kidnapped as part of the deal of exchanging Palestinian prisoners in return for Shalit. He regards these reports as baseless and stated that kidnapping foreign guests is a low act that harms the [Palestinian] cause and its advocates to the extent that only a few journalists are left in the Gaza Strip.

Nael Ghabun who works for the Fox News and Sky News networks said that there are no foreign journalists in the Gaza Strip and before they enter the area, they ask about protection and the nature of their movements and that some journalists pay armed men to protect them and only travel in armored vehicles lest they should be the aim of gunfire. Furthermore, according to Ghabun, journalists aim to complete their work before the Erez crossing is closed to avoid spending the night in the Gaza Strip. Ghabun recalls how Anita McNaught, the wife of a Fox News cameraman [Olif Wiig] who was also the victim of a hostage operation visited the Gaza Strip as part of a Guardian report on the day that Alan was kidnapped and could not leave immediately because the Erez crossing had been closed already. She refused to spend the night at a hotel and chose to stay at the house of a Palestinian journalist. She spent the night wearing a headscarf to look Palestinian and left the Gaza Strip wearing it. Ghabun mentioned the economic harm that the absence of foreign journalists afflicts upon the Gaza Strip and how this affects hotels, local reporters and photographers.