The captors of BBC reporter Alan Johnston released him to Hamas officials July 4, 2007, 114 days after he was kidnapped in the Gaza Strip.
“The last 16 weeks were by far the worst days of my life. It was like being buried alive, removed from the world. It was occasionally terrifying,” Johnston told reporters gathered in former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s office shortly after his release. “And now it really is over, and it really is indescribably good.”
When he was kidnapped, Johnston was the only western journalist reporting permanently from Gaza. Reports say he was widely respected for his intelligent and fair reporting on the region. A group called Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam, kidnapped Johnston March 12, 2007 in Gaza City. Jaish al-Islam’s power stems from Gaza’s Dagmoush clan. The group claims to act in the “spirit” of al-Qaida, but consists of hired guns motivated as much by money as ideological beliefs, the Washington Post reported July 4.
During the first half of Johnston’s captivity no group publicly claimed responsibility for the kidnapping or made any demands, prompting speculation that he had been killed. Although kidnappings are not uncommon in Gaza, most are quickly followed by demands for ransom money or the release of prisoners, and end within hours or days, the Post reported. Observers compared Johnston’s kidnapping with those perpetrated by al-Qaida-linked groups in Iraq that have ended in the death of the victim.
On April 20, al-Jihad al-Tawheed, or the Brigades of Holy War and Unity, further raised concerns by claiming Johnston was dead. (See “BBC Reporter Alive Despite Extremists’ Claims” in the Spring 2007 issue of the Silha Bulletin.) Though the report was quickly discredited by Palestinian officials, they offered no evidence that Johnston remained alive. More than 200 Palestinian journalists converged on the parliament building in Gaza to call on Palestinian officials to turn over any information they had.
The Guardian of London reported July 5 that Johnston had been pleased and surprised when he learned of the protest at the parliament building while listening to the BBC World Service on a radio provided by his captors.
On June 1 Jaish al-Islam released a video of Johnston on an Islamist Web site. The video showed Johnston criticizing Israel, as well as U.S. and British policy in the region. It also provided the first evidence that Johnston remained alive and well.
Later in June, after Hamas had defeated rival group Fatah in a battle for control of Gaza, Hamas issued a 48-hour ultimatum for Johnston’s release. The deadline passed without action, but Johnston later credited the group for increasing security in Gaza and pushing for his release. “The whole mood began to change,” Johnston said in a July 5 Financial Times story. “Hamas is a controversial organization . . . but I’m pretty sure if Hamas hadn’t come and stuck the heat on in a big way I would still be in that room.”
On June 25 as Hamas increased the pressure for Johnston’s release, Jaish al-Islam released a second video. This one showed Johnston wearing a belt filled with explosives and warned that any attempt to rescue him by force would lead to his death.
Ignoring the threat, 6,000 Hamas fighters surrounded the area where Johnston was being held in the days before his July 4 release. Hamas captured 10 members of Jaish al-Islam before arranging for Johnston’s release.
Time magazine reported July 16 that Johnston’s release served as a way for Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders to showcase their control over Gaza and attempt to find more support in the international community. The United States and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization for its involvement in suicide bombings and other armed conflicts with Israel. The United States does not recognize the Hamas-led government in Palestine.
“This liberation of Alan Johnston is first of all a message for all Palestinians that Hamas will support their rights and support their security and a message for all Arab and Islamic and world nations that we are Hamas . . . our enemy is only Israeli occupation,” Fawzy Barhoom, a Hamas spokesman, said in the Financial Times story.
The Independent of London reported on July 5 that Johnston planned to leave Gaza after three years there and return to his native Scotland. Despite his ordeal, he said he would leave with fond memories of the Palestinian people. “I know very well what Palestinian culture is, and the extraordinary warmth and hospitality - especially of Gaza,” he said.
– Michael Schoepf, Silha Research Assistant