Tuesday, April 24, 2007

TEL AVIV — Several dozen foreign journalists will demonstrate at the entrance to the Gaza Strip today, drawing attention to a growing threat of violence and kidnapping that has made the Palestinian territory a virtual no-go zone for international correspondents.

No Western reporter has been permanently based in the Gaza Strip since Alan Johnston, the veteran Gaza bureau chief for the British Broadcasting Corp., was abducted by Palestinian militants on March 12. He has not been heard from since that time.

Kidnapping has been on the rise in the Palestinian territories in the past two years, but most abductees were released within a few hours in exchange for government promises regarding jobs.

“We’ve all been to Gaza and hardly any of us have been kidnapped, but something about Alan’s case has persuaded us that this is something different,” said Simon McGreggor-Wood, chairman of the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Jerusalem, which is organizing today’s demonstration demanding Mr. Johnston’s release.

The reporters will protest outside of the Israeli terminal at the Erez crossing at Gaza’s northern end. A parallel show of solidarity by Gazan journalists will be held on the Palestinian side of the crossing.

“Gaza for most of the foreign press corps has become a no-go zone. We consider that, as a community, we are under threat,” Mr. McGreggor-Wood said.

While foreign governments routinely warn their nationals about the chaos in the Palestinian territories, some journalists have continued to pay one-day visits to the coastal strip, which is home to 1.5 million Palestinians. But in recent weeks, the FPA issued a rare advisory warning its members about the risks of working in the territory.

“It’s a very sad statement about what’s going on in Gaza,” said Annette Young, a reporter who works for Nine Network Australia and says she can no longer take the risk of visiting Gaza. “It’s the first time in my professional history that I’m restricted in my movements.”

In the latest violence yesterday, Hamas militants in Gaza fired dozens of rockets and mortars into Israel, marking their first open defiance of a five-month cease-fire. The militant group, which announced an end to the truce with Israel, said it was retaliating for the army’s killing of nine Palestinians in recent days.

Israeli newspapers reported that the army’s response would be limited.

Late last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said there was evidence that Mr. Johnston was alive. Just a few days earlier, a statement was released to the press asserting that Mr. Johnston had been killed by the previously unheard of group the Brigades of Tawheed and Jihad.

Over the past year, a total of 18 foreign journalists and aid workers have been abducted in Gaza, but most were quickly released. Unlike in Iraq, where international aid workers and journalists have suffered macabre executions by terrorists, Palestinians see the presence of foreigners as crucial to communicating their hardship to the rest of the world.

BBC spokesmen and Palestinian journalists have strongly criticized the Palestinian Authority for failing to find Mr. Johnston and for its lax treatment of militants who kidnapped reporters in the past.

“There is a great sense of disappointment among Palestinian journalists in the way the case of Alan is being handled. The continuation of the abduction of Alan is sending a bad message to the world, and it has to come to an end,” said Nidal Al-Mugrabi, a Gaza-based correspondent for Reuters news agency who heads a task force of local reporters pressing the government to secure his release.

Mr. Al-Mugrabi said the absence of foreign reporters from Gaza ultimately hurts the Palestinian cause.

“As long as there are international people visiting Gaza, it gives a sense of stability and security,” he said. “If Alan Johnston is, God forbid, killed, it means that Gaza will be forgotten, the gates will be closed, and that would be disastrous.”

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