Saturday, April 15, 2006

Tension in Gaza

Western journalists visiting the Gaza Strip always found it prudent to exercise a certain amount of caution. While violent incidents involving visitors were rare, it was considered advisable to avoid the roads after dark and many preferred not to remain in the territory overnight.

But it has become a lot more dicey since the Israeli evacuation late last year, and especially since 10 or more foreigners were kidnapped in reaction to an Israeli raid on a prison in Jericho last month, according to our correspondent Joshua Mitnick. Lingering anger over a series of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper hasn’t helped.

Mr. Mitnick has been making regular reporting trips into Gaza for years and even lived in one of the settlements for a few weeks last year to cover the Israeli withdrawal. But he says his trip last week to report on the establishment of military training camps by Hamas and Fatah was the first on which he felt it necessary to hire an armed bodyguard.

“Most of the journalists who have been kidnapped were released in a couple of hours,” Mr. Mitnick says. “But, obviously, I didn’t want to end up in that situation.”

Like other reporters who travel regularly to Gaza, Mr. Mitnick uses a regular Palestinian “fixer” who sets up appointments in advance and serves as translator and guide when he gets there. Typically, the fixer is waiting with a car and driver when Mr. Mitnick enters Gaza through the Erez Crossing from Israel and escorts him wherever he needs to go.

On Wednesday, however, the fixer told Mr. Mitnick that this time they would not take any chances.

“We drove into Gaza City to pick up a bodyguard,” Mr. Mitnick says. “The bodyguard rode in the front seat with a concealed pistol for the portion of the time we were in Gaza City. When we went further south, we upgraded: The guy with the pistol disappeared and a guy with a rifle got in. He just seemed like a good-looking young kid, but my fixer told me he was tougher than the other one.”

Random violence

Mr. Mitnick says he understands the gunman was affiliated with a security chief from Fatah who controlled the Palestinian security services in Gaza.

Fatah and Hamas now are wrestling for control of the security services, which is precisely what Mr. Mitnick was in Gaza to write about. But he says he wasn’t too worried about getting caught in a sectarian conflict because of the bodyguard.

“I don’t think the kidnapping of reporters has been politically motivated,” Mr. Mitnick says. “I see the people doing this as young toughs who are not getting paid, so it’s good to have someone who can intimidate them. I just thought if you run into people who are armed, the bodyguard would sort of ward off random violence.”

There are other reasons to be uncomfortable in Gaza these days, including regular Israeli artillery shelling of the territory in retaliation for the firing of Kassam rockets aimed at nearby Israeli communities.

“[Artillery shells] go off constantly,” Mr. Mitnick says. “I’d say they come in once every few minutes to once an hour. Most seem to be aimed at empty fields as long as no Israeli cities are being hit, just to intimidate the Palestinians. One U.N. official said to me, ‘This is our music now.’”

Mr. Mitnick says he was initially uncomfortable with the idea of walking on the streets and approaching people for interviews with an armed escort at his side.

“I didn’t want to be part of that whole Gaza world of guns,” he says. “I wanted to be low-key, out of sight. I prefer what they call the soft approach.”

But, he says, “My fixer told me, ‘Don’t worry, around here it’s normal to walk around with a gun.’” And indeed, no one he spoke to seemed taken aback by the presence of the gunman.

• David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is

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