4 July 2007 0 Comments

Who kidnapped Alan Johnston? Look inside the Palestinian Authority for a real dirty deal

BBC journalist Alan Johnston is free, but the truth behind his five months as a hostage in Gaza remains murky. If you only read the newspapers, that is.

Journalists won’t be telling you who really kidnapped the 45-year-old Scottish reporter, or why he was released now. So I’ll tell you: powerful figures inside the Palestinian Authority’s security services kidnapped him, and he was released because the Palestinian Authority no longer wields power in Gaza.

Sound too dirty to be credible? You haven’t spent enough time in Gaza. I have.

Here’s how this nasty little episode went. In February, the Palestinians kicked off a civil war between Hamas and Fatah, the main wing of the PLO. The Saudi government, fearful that Iran would use its backing of Hamas to fight a proxy war against U.S.-funded Fatah forces, called the two sides to Mecca to agree a ceasefire.

But foreign correspondents already had given prominent coverage to the Gaza infighting. For Palestinian security chiefs, foreign correspondents are a good thing so long as they report on Israel’s military incursions into Gaza. Coverage of Palestinian gunmen going head to head wasn’t so welcome, of course. In fact, it made Gaza’s main security strongman, Muhammad Dahlan, look like he had lost control.

So a foreign correspondent was nabbed to persuade his colleagues that Gaza was too dangerous to cover. That happened to be Johnston, but it could’ve been anyone else. It could’ve been me.

When Johnston was taken on March 12, Palestinian leaders claimed to know nothing about what had happened. As his captivity extended far beyond the brief duration of previous Gaza kidnappings, the people who took him at first had no demands in return for his release. Curious, because all the previous kidnappings had very clear and immediate demands… Palestinian security chiefs, who know everything that happens inside the tiny strip of land that is Gaza, claimed not to know where Johnston was or who held him. The Palestinian president, on the other hand, assured us that Johnston was in good health…. If no one knew where he was or who had kidnapped him, then how did they know he was doing fine?

Eventually the kidnappers put out enough misinformation in the form of a bogus jihadi-style name for their group — the Army of Islam — and scary movies of Johnston in a suicide-bomber’s belt to appear to give the kidnapping credibility.

Then the kidnappers, who were from a violent Gaza clan called Daghmoush, hit trouble. Two weeks ago, Hamas tired of Fatah’s endless gang warfare and chased them out of Gaza. More precisely, they chased Dahlan’s Preventive Security Service out of Gaza.

On his release Johnston noted that his treatment seemed to change when Fatah and the Preventive Security disappeared from Gaza. That’s because the kidnappers had become isolated. Hamas leaders insisted they would free Johnston, while the kidnappers’ backers inside the security forces had fled. After two weeks, the Daghmoush managed to trade Johnston for an understanding that Hamas wouldn’t give them the same vicious treatment meted out to Dahlan’s henchmen in the Preventive Security.

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