The BBC’s correspondent in Gaza was kidnapped overnight. Alan Johnston was abducted as he drove his rented car to his office in Gaza City. Johnston was returning from the Erez checkpoint at the border between Israel and Palestine when four armed men in a white Subaru stopped the car, forced him out and drove away. Johnston’s car was left abandoned at the scene. The Palestinian interior ministry has ordered all security services and police to search for the missing journalist.
The 44 year old Johnston has been the BBC correspondent in Gaza City for the last three years. He is the only foreign journalist from a major media organisation based in Gaza. Alan Johnston was born in Tanzania and educated in Scotland. He joined the BBC World Service in 1991 and has spent eight of the last 16 years as a correspondent, including periods in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. His term in Gaza was due to expire in April.
The Gaza Strip is a dangerous place for outsiders. There have been at least 20 cases of abduction of foreigners in Gaza in the last year. Kidnappers from a plethora of small and increasingly splintered militant groups use hostages as bargaining chips to gain concessions from the Palestinian Authority and usually release them unharmed after their demands are met.
The narrow 360 square kilometre strip of Gaza is home to 1.4 million Palestinians but is not officially part of any country. Gaza was part of the British mandate of Palestine after World War I ended Ottoman rule. According to the UN’s 1947 partition plan, the territory of Gaza was slated to become part of an independent Arab state. War broke out a year later after British troops left the country. Gaza’s population tripled as Palestinian refugees fled other parts of the country. Gaza remained under Egyptian military rule until Israel captured it during the 1967 Six Day War.
Growing Israeli settlements added to the tensions which finally exploded in the first Arab Intifada (uprising) of the late 1980s. Israeli influence continued to grow in the Strip despite the signing peace accords which called for the transfer of power in Gaza to a new Palestinian authority. In 1994, the two sides signed the Gaza-Jericho agreement. Israeli troops withdrew from most of the Strip but stayed to guard the Jewish settlements and the border itself. Hamas were unhappy with the terms of the agreement and within a year, suicide bombers began to carry out attacks against Israeli forces. Moves towards peace were abandoned once more.
Direct negotiations to determine the permanent status of Gaza and the West Bank began in September 1999 after a three-year gap, but were derailed by a second intifada that broke out a year later. Finally in 2005, Israel’s Knesset voted to implement Prime Minister Sharon’s plan for unilateral disengagement. All 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip were evacuated despite violent protests by settlers unwilling to leave. But hopes of a permanent peace between the sides were dashed a few months later with the election of Hamas as the Palestinian Government.
Hamas’ charter calls for the destruction of the Israel and its replacement with a Palestinian Islamic State. In June 2006, a stray Israeli shell killed eight people on a Gaza beach. Hamas immediately declared an end to a ceasefire with Israel and launched many homemade Qassam rocket attacks across the border. They also kidnapped an Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit. Israel launched a major offensive to recover him and bombed Government buildings, bridges, roads and Gaza’s only power station. The violence petered out after several weeks and many deaths.
But tensions remain high in Gaza. Despite the Israeli army intervention, Corporal Shalit remains in custody. In September Egyptian mediators obtained a letter in Shalit’s handwriting stating he was still alive. The shadowy Popular Resistance Committee (made up of ex-Fatah militants) claimed they had Shalit and were prepared to do a swap deal for Palestinian prisoners. But in January, another of Gaza’s militant groups, the Army of Islam said that Hamas was holding Shalit, a claim that Hamas themselves deny.
Foreigners are also in the firing line, though tend to be released more quickly. Prior to Johnston’s capture, the most recent kidnapping of a foreign journalist was that of Peruvian photographer Jaime Razuri. Razuri who works for the Agence France-Press (AFP) was snatched by armed men outside the agency's offices in Gaza City on New Years Day. Although Razuri’s case was mostly ignored by North American and European media, he became a cause celebre in his home country and elsewhere. 200 Journalists in Palestine held a sit-in to protest attacks on members on the press. Razuri was released unharmed seven days later into the custody of President Mahmoud Abbas saying “I’m fine. I’m very happy to be released. They treated me well and gave me good food."
In August last year, two journalists from Fox News also spent two weeks in captivity before being released. Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig were captured at gunpoint and held in a garage where they were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint. Centanni spoke to reporters on his release "I hope that this never scares a single journalist away from coming to Gaza to cover the story because the Palestinian people are very beautiful and kind hearted," he said "The world needs to know more about them. Don't be discouraged."