BBC correspondent Alan Johnston disappeared on his way home from his Gaza City office nearly six weeks ago on the 12th of March. He is feared to have been kidnapped in the lawless territory, where he was thought to have been the last international correspondent still working.
Bizarrely, one of Alan Johnston’s most recent pieces for the BBC programme “From Our Own Correspondent” was a description of the business of kidnapping in Gaza.
I vividly remember hearing his description of Palestine style kidnapping: –
In Iraq an abduction can end in the most brutal murder. But fortunately Gaza is not Iraq, nothing like it. So far, all the foreigners kidnapped here have been freed quite quickly and unharmed.
Often they have been used as bargaining chips, a way for a group of gunmen to get attention.
Gaza is awash with bands of militants: the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, the Jenin Brigade, the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigade and so on.
They used to attack the occupying Israeli troops and settlers. But the settlements were abandoned in the autumn when the army pulled out, and now the boys from the Brigades find themselves with time on their hands.
They want proper jobs in this poverty-stricken place, and usually they want to be allowed to join the security services. It is ironic really. Gaza is the only place in the world where your kidnapper’s one demand is that he should be allowed to become a policeman.
And the kidnap craze has thrown up moments of black humour.
Against the social grain
The gunmen are not always crack division militants, more Keystone Kidnappers. While an Italian journalist was being led off to a hideout he had to climb a fence. And when one of his abductors started the climb he absentmindedly handed the Italian his gun. Surely it is the first thing they teach you at kidnapper’s school, never give the hostage your machinegun.
Alan then delivers his finely nuanced but chilling assessment of the local constabulary:-
What you fear most is a bungled rescue attempt. Winkling out a hostage safely is not easy – even for the world’s best trained police – and Gaza’s finest could not really be described in that way.
There have been some emotional roller coaster rides for Alan’s parents and friends over the last few days
Last week, a previously unheard of group calling themselves the Tawhid and Jihad Brigades, claimed to have killed him to highlight the plight of Palestinian detainees held by Israel.
Days pass without any evidence being offered to confirm or deny this scary claim.
Today, the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that the missing BBC reporter is still alive.
“Our intelligence services have confirmed to me that he’s alive,” Mr Abbas told reporters in Sweden.
Mr Abbas said he knew which group was holding Mr Johnston but did not give any details.
In Gaza, a senior security official said the earlier reports of Mr Johnston’s death were unfounded.
Mohammed al-Masri said that the available evidence suggested that he was alive and in secure conditions.
Mr Johnston’s father, Graham, said he was delighted at the report.
“That’s good news, that’s really good news,” he said.
“This is the news I’ve been waiting to hear and I don’t think the Palestinian president would say this unless he was convinced it was true.
“But we still don’t have proof of life. That’s what I want desperately. It’s been nearly six weeks now.”
In a statement, the BBC also welcomed the report, adding that it wanted “firm evidence of Alan’s well-being and his immediate release”.
The signs are encouraging, but Gaza is a fractured, lawless place where truth and rumour are hard to distinguish, says the BBC’s Keith Adams.
Protests against Mr Johnston’s kidnap have been held in Britain, the Palestinian territories and other parts of the Middle East almost daily since his abduction.
In company with many thousands of well wishers, I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that Mahmoud Abbas knows Alan Johnston’s state of health and his whereabouts, and that he will be freed very soon.
However, I will uncross my fingers long enough to go and sign the petition on the BBC News website.