THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE, GAZA STYLE
(By Yuval Hyman, Kol Hazman, Ma'ariv Jerusalem supplement, 30.3.07, pp.
[Translated by the Israel Government Press Office]
(The Durmoush family from Gaza has developed a new innovative source of
income for itself: Kidnapping foreign journalists for ransom. A captive can
bring in as much as $2 million. Alan Johnston, a BBC correspondent, already
two and a half weeks in captivity, is the 15th victim of the Gaza Strip's
hottest economic branch. - Lead story, front page)
For the last three years the Gaza Strip has been a hothouse for the
kidnapping of foreign journalists. Payment for their release can reach as
much as $2 million. The Durmoush family, implicated in the abduction of
Gilad Shalit, has monopolized the trend in Gaza, with the help of local
photographers who assist in the kidnapping of their foreign colleagues who
encroach on their territory. As of Wednesday, British citizen Alan Johnston
counted 17 days as a hostage.
Money, territorial control, copycatting and some degree of honor are the
four factors moving the wheels of the latest trend of foreign journalist
kidnappings in the Gaza Strip. It all started in September 2004 with the
abduction of Israeli journalist Riyadh Ali, who worked as a producer for
CNN. Three years have passed and in recent days BBC Gaza correspondent Alan
Johnston has become the 15th victim. For a good number of years,
journalists have become easy targets in various regional conflicts. The
recent war in Iraq has cost the lives of dozens of journalists. Some were
killed simply because they were caught in the midst of battle, others were
kidnapped and brutally murdered for ideological reasons by activists from
extremist organizations. The remainder were kidnapped for extortion.
Gaza, like Iraq in the days following the downfall of Saddam Hussein, is one
big chaotic mess. Unlike Iraq, abducted journalists are not in immediate
danger. In most cases the opposite is true. If the respective news agency
promptly pays the ransom, victims are released within days and even hours.
On the kidnapping field of Gaza, two main players are involved. The first
player is the Durmoush family, implicated in the kidnapping of Israeli
soldier Gilad Shalit and presently holding Alan Johnston. The second player
is a spontaneous amalgamation of local Gaza photographers. The presence of
the foreign photographers takes a bite out of their tremendous monthly
incomes, not just in Gaza economic terms. All analysis of the Gaza
kidnapping phenomenon leads to one conclusion: This is an incredible
economic pipeline that pays its perpetrators very large profits. Among the
journalists it is said that $2 million changed hands in the release of two
employees from the Fox network, in August 2006. "No such thing occurred", a
Fox network senior official flatly denied, "The kidnappers did not receive a
thing." Despite Fox network's denials, somebody is growing fat and wealthy
from this new lucrative profession.
With the Americans, everything is done on a large scale. When news spread
of the kidnapping of American correspondent Steve Centanni and New Zealand
photographer Olaf Wiig from Fox News, tens of black jeeps filled with
serious-looking types, entered Gaza. The idea behind the massive show of
force was to demonstrate to the kidnappers that the abductees had the
support of the American intelligence agencies. But that didn't help one
bit. Some say that the bombastic display only served to delay the
journalists' release. A few days later, after consultations, the plan of
action changed completely. Authorization to negotiate with the kidnappers
was transferred to elements in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Following
nine days of silence the kidnappers demanded the release of Muslim prisoners
held in the United States. The response by the Americans was predictable,
no negotiations with terrorists. In the meantime Fox tried to recruit the
help of Israeli field correspondents who have ties in the PA and other
contacts in the field, but to no avail. A few days later the kidnappers
released a video in which Centanni and Wiig were shown converting to Islam
live. On the 14th day they were released in spite of the fact that their
original demands were not met and the grandiose show of force was withdrawn
within a short period of time. It is a wonder what convinced the kidnappers
to release they captives? A rhetorical question, of course.
Since the incident, Fox's security regulations have changed. The network
refused to give details of their new procedures. "For now we have no
permanent crew in the Gaza Strip," said a senior Fox official, "We do not
have a permanent crew, nor did we have one prior to the kidnapping. The
crew was there for a period because the ongoing situation warranted it. If
there is a special reason we send a crew, whether for a week or a day.
Regarding regulations, I am not interested in expanding. Either way, there
are always concerns when going to Gaza."
Tomorrow was to be Johnston's last day in Gaza. During his three years in
Gaza the veteran journalist made many friends. Since last years' kidnapping
of the people from Fox news, few media organizations station permanent
correspondents and photographers in the Gaza Strip. If once a correspondent
would cover Gaza and live amongst its citizens, today the case is totally
different. The journalist sits in Jerusalem, or any other secure city, and
ventures to Gaza only when an incident necessitates the risk. Johnston, who
covered Afghanistan and Uzbekistan for the BBC, insisted on residing in
Gaza. His case is unusual not only for his living in Gaza during a period
of bedlam and lawlessness against journalists. Wednesday marked 17 days of
Johnston's captivity, making him the longest held journalist. In addition,
his kidnapping made great waves amongst Palestinian journalists. Since his
kidnapping, two demonstrations have been held by journalists calling for his
release, one in the West Bank, the other in Gaza. On Tuesday, all Gaza
radio stations broadcast an hour devoted to Johnston.
The British learned from the pompous entrance of American intelligence
agents, and when the kidnapping was verified, started to take quiet action.
In the present kidnapping incident, the MI5 are involved; negotiations
experts; Security personnel; and UNRWA workers who have been in Gaza for
some time. In addition, senior BBC officials have been arriving during the
last two weeks. The operation is being handled in secrecy. Other than the
BBC and the involved intelligence organizations, no one knows what is
happening behind the scenes. The advantage of the British, as opposed to
other organizations that have had workers kidnapped, is their exceptional
relations with, and support among, the Palestinian journalists. Most of the
negotiations are being handled by people in the PA.
"There is almost continuous contact between the kidnappers and people in the
field", explains Israel Television Channel 10's Zvi Yehezkeli about the
conduct of affairs between tippers, fixers and clansmen. One knows people,
the other knows family and, most importantly, elders and dignitaries who
speak to the hearts of the kidnappers are enlisted in the effort. BBC
people are not in direct contact with the kidnappers. "Our contacts are
with local politicians who will arrange the release, explains Fran Unsworth,
head of BBC newsgathering, "We have various crews in Gaza assisting us.
Local journalists initiated a campaign for Alan, are helping very much to
secure his release.
Q: "Can you confirm that he is being held by the Durmoush family?"
"I cannot say who is holding him and why."
Q: "Have the kidnappers contacted you?"
"We are not involved and nobody has turned to us."
Q: "Can you say why it is taking so long?"
"I cannot say why this is taking so long because we have no information on
who took him. I can only say that the situation is very fragile."
Q: "Are you concerned for his life?"
"I am optimistic that they will not kill Alan, also because there have never
been such killings in Gaza."
As noted, these were due to be Johnston's last days in Gaza. If he had not
been kidnapped, it is reasonable to assume that he would have been replaced
by another correspondent who would have become a resident of the Gaza Strip.
The kidnapping threw a monkey-wrench into the works. "We must think about
returning a correspondent to the field, " Unsworth continues, "We have to
bring the story to our public but we have yet to decide how to act." One of
the main reasons why Johnston is being held captive beyond the norm stems
from a change in perception by senior PA officials. Since Johnston's
abduction, the PA has hardened its negotiating stance. Since the kidnapping
of journalists became an epidemic, the name of the PA has been harmed.
Today, it is understood in the PA that abducting journalists contradicts
their interests. As a preventive step, PA negotiators have become more
unyielding so that such events do not recur.
In the last two years, media personnel claim that local journalists, mainly
photographers who reside in Gaza, have become active partners in the
kidnappings in order to maintain their livelihoods. Almost half of the
abductees are photographers, both stills and video. According to one
Israeli photographer who has spent more than a little time in Gaza, the
reason for this is clear. "A local photographer who freelances for an
agency can make much more than a hired photographer who arrives from
overseas," he explains, "For example, you know the photos of armed men
burning the picture of the new Chief-of-Staff? The photographers from Gaza
staged this photo and sold it afterwards to the same agencies. A good photo
from Gaza is worth several hundred dollars. Such a photographer could make
$6-8,000 a month. As soon as a foreign photographer arrives and begins to
move around, he takes away a local photographer's livelihood. The agencies
understood that it pays more for them to send a hired photographer than to
buy photos from a local photographer. After most of the agencies began to
send hired photographers, there was a rise in the number of abducted
photographers. I have no other explanation.
See, this couldn't work on the west Bank because there isn't the same number
of events there, people are interested in Gaza. Photographers have a lot of
work in Gaza. From a practical point-of-view, kidnappings are almost
impossible on the West Bank due to the distances between the cities. The
organizations are dispersed among the various cities and they are not as
strong as they are in Gaza. In the West Bank, at most they threaten and try
to frighten foreign correspondents. In Gaza, they have no problem speaking
to the Durmoush family and arranging for the photographer to be abducted. In
the meantime, this is paying off for them because fewer and fewer
photographers are entering Gaza."
On the first day of 2007, the Peruvian Jaime Razuri, who photographed for
AFP, was abducted. In contrast to other instances in which photographers
were abducted, Razuri was kidnapped because he was in the wrong place at the
wrong time. On the same day, there was a battle between the Durmoush family
and Iz A-Din El-Kassam personnel from Hamas's military wing. Members of the
Durmoush family were holed up in a certain area and had deployed snipers.
Hamas had ordered its force to eliminate the Durmoush family. As soon as
the family heard about the other side's intentions, they kidnapped Razuri
and told the enemy commanders that they had a human shield. At the same
time, they succeeded in foiling a Hamas action and the battle was halted.
Razuri was released after six days.
"The positive aspect of the abductions is that there is no ideological base
like there is in Iraq," the photographer continues, "A kidnapping in Iraq
could be perpetrated by an ideologically screwed-up nut looking to make a
name for himself by murdering someone. In Gaza, it's all a matter of money,
except for the Razuri incident. Razuri is a vegetarian and when his
abductors brought him meat, he refused to eat it and they saw to it that he
had vegetarian food. They have no intention of harming the abductees becaus
e in the end, they want the money and maybe to instill a little fear."
In the meantime, there is a storm over the kidnappings. On the Palestinian
street, they have understood that nothing good comes out of this, on the
contrary. Their image in the eyes of those who bring the stories to the
world is harmed. Moreover, in their view, a journalist who covers Gaza from
inside always presents their view better. "From the Palestinian people's
point-of-view, the abductions adversely affect the coverage, according to
Abd Al-Askar, who represents several foreign media organizations in Gaza and
is close to Muhammad Dahlan, "The kidnappings cause major damage because
foreign journalists are scared to come to the Strip. Since the kidnapping
of the two Fox journalists, I see much less presence by journalists. Those
who arrive are becoming scarce and even they try not to remain in the place
for more than a few hours at a time."
Q: "But it is said that journalists from Gaza are involved in the
"That's bullshit. Johnston is a friend of the Palestinian journalists.
There is a ban on kidnapping journalists because the more foreign
journalists there are in Gaza, the better and more accurate the delivery of
our story is. One cannot compare between a journalist who covers Gaza from
the inside and lives in the city and a journalist who sits in Jerusalem or
someplace else and comes occasionally. When you are in Gaza, you get a feel
for the place and its people and you know what is really happening."
Q: "I assume that you fear that foreign journalists will become less
pro-Palestinian in the wake of the kidnappings."
"It is not at all a question of being pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. A
journalist must maintain his objectivity, report what is happening in the
field and not take sides. See, at the end of the day, we all lose on this
issue. I don't know the reasons for the kidnappings because in most cases,
the kidnappers don't leave a letter or any demands. In no case was there a
demand to pay a ransom. I remember one case in which the release of
prisoners was demanded and another in which the kidnappers wanted jobs."
There is an unwritten law in Gaza regarding harming abducted journalists.
"To the kidnappers it is clear that they will release," explains Yehezkeli,
"They are afraid to harm them because there are rules that one doesn't
break, even in Gaza. In short, the journalists help coverage. If a
kidnapper commits an Al Qaeda-style murder in front of the cameras, there
will be a serious mess there. In principle, there is an unwritten rule that
everyone currently agrees on."
Even though it is understood in Gaza that the abductions do not serve local
interests, nobody is rushing to release Johnston. The reason for this is
financial of course. When the media organization releases money, there are
many partners in the pile of cash. Everybody wants to receive his cut;
therefore, the negotiations are with many elements. The history of
kidnappings in general teaches that when people from the PA, Hamas or any
other influential body have an interest, the abductee is released quickly.
"When the PA really wants it, the person is released within minutes," says
Yehezkeli, "When they kidnapped Dahlan's friend Sufian Abu Zaide he was at
home within 20 minutes because Dahlan sent a threatening message to Ismail
Haniyeh. You understand, when they're pressed to the wall, it's possible.
With journalists, it goes slowly but they are released in the end. One
appeals mainly to Haniyeh and Dahlan. If the kidnappers want to make a
certain person disappear, he doesn't come back. These are not abductions
with an ultimatum. Johnston's case is a little strange because it is going
over the legal limit for such cases."
When the Johnston saga ends, we can expect to see a well-known scenario from
previous cases. Johnston, after a shower, a shave and a good meal, will
stand next to Abu Mazen and Haniyeh and warmly thank them for their great
efforts to release him. It is possible that he will also be demanded to
make some sort of statement on Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq or
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And then, when the 15th foreign
journalist to have been kidnapped in Gaza is released, it is not certain
that this fashion will stop. Everything depends on the economic needs of
the Durmoush family and the big eyes of the local photographers. Reality
shows that it does not matter how much money a person has, he always wants
more. Thus, it is possible to prepare for the 16th kidnapping.