- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

By Alan Johnston, with a foreword by Tony Grant
Profile Books, $12.95, 160 pages, paper

“For me,” BBC reporter Alan Johnston writes in “Kidnapped and Other Dispatches,” a collection of his reports from Gaza (where he was held hostage for just over 16 weeks), Afghanistan and Central Asia, “perhaps the best analysis of the Taliban and their associates came from a slightly older, French journalist. He had seen Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and he knew a bit about fanaticism and how it works. ‘Beware,’ he said, ‘of those who believe that they are pure.’”

Much the same caution might be given about the BBC and about Mr. Johnston himself, whose reporting from Gaza for the “Beeb,” as it’s sometimes called, displays the World Service’s holier-than-thou perspective, its (pre-Obama) anti-American and consistently anti-Israeli biases. Indeed, Mr. Johnston is one of those reporters so outraged by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that in his eyes, the Israelis can seldom if ever do anything that is not immoral, dehumanizing or brutal, while Palestinians are for the most part portrayed exclusively as noble and long-suffering victims.

Thus, Mr. Johnston is able to write the following about his first few days in Gaza, where he covered Israel’s 2004 incursion: “They had come looking for the garages and workshops where rockets were made before being fired at the homes of Jewish families in nearby, illegally built settlements.” The fighting was fierce, Mr. Johnston reports. “There were many Palestinian dead and injured — numerous civilians among them. But several Israeli soldiers were killed too, and their body parts were taken as trophies. … I remember a young Palestinian coming up to me in the darkness and the wreckage carrying on a stick what looked like a piece of burned flesh. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is from a Jew.’ And so, with that grim introduction I began what were the three most extraordinary years of my life.”

Body parts as trophies, and all it is to Mr. Johnston is a “grim introduction.” Where, one might ask, is Mr. Johnston’s outrage over behavior that falls into the category of war crimes? Actually, Mr Johnston’s outrage appears a few pages later, where he describes meeting the Israeli survivor of a Palestinian suicide attack in Jerusalem. “Nouri,” he writes, “went into grotesque detail [about the bombing], telling me how the person he was chatting to had had his rib cage broken by the bomber’s head, which shot across the cafe like a cannonball.”

In an October 2006 report, Mr. Johnston covers the aftermath of “Black Sunday,” when Hamas and Fatah, the two Palestinian political organizations vying for control of Gaza, went to war against one another. Hamas had achieved a political victory in the Palestinian elections because Fatah was corrupt and inefficient. Its leaders lived like potentates while ordinary Palestinians couldn’t find work. “It was Palestinians killing Palestinians,” Mr. Johnston reports, “and for me the low point came when one set of gunmen took over the roof of Gaza’s Centre for Conflict Resolution.”

Irony is obviously not one of Mr. Johnston’s strong points, because anything labeled a “Center for Conflict Resolution” in Gaza is an obvious oxymoron. On a more serious note, Mr. Johnston’s coverage never mentions the wholesale massacres of Fatah security personnel, one of which Hamas actually videotaped and disseminated. In it, a line of bound, prone Fatah men are shot from behind by Kalashnikov-wielding gunmen who sprayed their screaming targets indiscriminately, hosing the ones still moving with more and more rounds until they all lay still.

I’ve seen the video and it is blood-curdling. Perhaps Mr. Johnston hasn’t seen that Hamas video or heard about it because he certainly underplays the savagery of the internecine violence. In fact, Mr. Johnston’s incredible bottom line about the Hamas vs. Fatah civil war is that it is Israel’s fault and America’s fault. “Imagine,” he broadcast, “that the army of the powerful neighbouring state had killed well over 200 of your people in recent months. Imagine that America was trying to break your newly elected government because it refused to accept that neighbouring state, which was actually occupying your territory. …

“How would your society cope with pressures like those? Maybe, eventually, there would be some street fighting.” There would be some street fighting? Mr. Johnston, it would seem, just doesn’t get it. It is part of a pattern. Take Afghanistan. “I arrived in Kabul soon after it had been stormed by one of the more extraordinary political movements of your time — the Taliban,” Mr. Johnston writes with what one imagines is a straight face. In an April 1997 report, Mr. Johnston told his listeners that “Many city people may be contemptuous of the Taliban but most appreciate the new sense of security; in the countryside the Taliban’s attitudes toward women and beards and cinemas have changed nothing.”

And while the Taliban’s penchant for floggings, stonings and the occasional beheading do not appear to have offended Mr. Johnston’s sensibilities, he is disturbed — slightly — by their destruction of the twin Buddhas of Bamiyan.Ten years later and in his last few weeks as BBC’s Gaza correspondent, Mr. Johnston was kidnapped by a previously unknown Jihadi group and held for 114 days. His experience wasn’t pleasant. But it may have been enlightening, in that by being the prisoner of extremists, he might, perhaps, come to realize that not everything is the fault of America or Israel.

Mr. Johnston even hinted as much to his BBC producer Tony Grant, when he said during the long interview included in his book, “When you look back across the Middle East you see dictatorial regimes, corruption, instability and war. There has been a failure to build really impressive institutions and political systems. And all this is going on in the age of oil — a time when parts of the region are blessed with fantastic wealth. I very much believe that the peoples of the area do need to ask themselves hard questions about how their societies are structured and why they have failed to develop in more promising ways.”

Would that Mr. Johnston himself had posed “hard questions” during the years he was reporting from Gaza, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Doing so would have resulted in a body of work far more insightful and consequential than the shallow, stereotypical and biased commentaries he filed for the “Beeb.”

John Weisman’s latest novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” have all been released as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at [email protected]

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