- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

Kidnapped in Gaza

Joshua Mitnick, our correspondent in Israel, was surfing through some news sites on the Internet on Monday when he saw a report that a British Broadcasting Corp. reporter in Gaza had been kidnapped a few hours before.

Mr. Mitnick knew immediately who the victim was. The BBC’s Gaza bureau chief Alan Johnston was, after all, the only Western reporter still daring to work in the increasingly volatile Gaza Strip.

“I have known him two or three years,” Mr. Mitnick said by telephone after the kidnapping. “We met through a common colleague, a Palestinian producer.

“Johnston is very soft-spoken but probably one of the most plugged-in, one of the more keen foreign observers working in Gaza. He had the best idea of what was really going on in Gaza because he lived there.”

Mr. Mitnick said he had learned to rely on Mr. Johnston’s judgment as conditions deteriorated in the Gaza Strip, especially after a Fox News reporter and cameraman were held by kidnappers for almost two weeks in August last year.

“I was debating whether to go down there, trying to assess whether it was safe to go, and I called Johnston to get his read on it. He basically told me the Fox kidnapping was different from previous kidnappings, that it marked kind of a milestone,” Mr. Mitnick said.

There had been a handful of journalist kidnappings in Gaza before the Fox seizures, but most had been the work of criminal outfits seeking ransom or guns and were resolved by Palestinian security forces within hours.

The Fox kidnappings were different, Mr. Johnston told Mr. Mitnick. Several elements of the seizure — such as forcing the victims to make a videotaped “confession” — carried the earmarks of a politically motivated “global jihad” operation.

Presence of mind

The kidnappings also marked a turning point of another kind, Mr. Mitnick said; after that, most foreign news organizations became very wary about sending their people into Gaza.

Journalists carrying Israeli passports or identity cards have been forbidden by their own government from crossing into the territory from around that time. Americans and Europeans simply stopped going, relying instead on Palestinian reporters to feed them quotes and information from the tightly sequestered strip.

“It’s frustrating not to be able to go there,” Mr. Mitnick said, “because you feel that’s where the story is right now, and these kidnappers are creating a chill that prevents journalists from covering one of the most important stories in the Middle East.”

By the time he was dragged from his car by masked gunmen on Monday, Mr. Johnston — who lives in an apartment in Gaza City — was the last Western reporter still working there on a regular basis.

He demonstrated remarkable presence of mind. According to news reports from the scene, he somehow managed to pull out a business card and drop it on the ground as he was being hustled away, so authorities would know who had been taken.

Palestinian authorities announced within a day that they had identified the kidnappers and expected to quickly secure Mr. Johnston’s release. But the days dragged on without any further word on his condition.

Mr. Mitnick said he found it “chilling” to read about the kidnapping.

“On the one hand, you think, ‘Here is someone who knows what security precautions to take. On the other hand, being down there on a regular basis, people know who he is.’

“So he faced a much greater risk than someone who came down there randomly on one day or another. It gives people a chance to observe you and a chance to recognize your patterns.”

Mr. Johnston very nearly completed his Gaza stint without incident, Mr. Mitnick said. “He is near the end of his posting down there; he was supposed to go home in two weeks.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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