Freedom for Alan Johnston
By Ramzy Baroud
In Trafalgar Square in London, dozens of journalists representing every
major news organisation descended on a designated corner in the tourist
infested area in support of Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent kidnapped
in Gaza on March 12, 2006, one month after his ordeal began.
Awaiting the arrival of Alan’s family to a press conference, organised by
Reporters without Borders, I stood along with a few activists. My nervous
smiles, interrupted by brief statements to inquiring journalists, could
hardly hide my utter feelings of shame. It’s not often that I feel this way,
taking part in a solidarity event in support of anyone. This time was
different, however, despite all attempts to distance oneself from
responsibility. “Alan, they are not from amongst us,” read of the banners
held by hundreds of journalists gathering in Ramallah, in the West Bank, to
support Alan on the same day we gathered in London. The unfortunate fact is
that while the kidnappers were not exactly elected representatives of the
Palestinian people, mostly known for their unparalleled generosity, warmth
and kindness to strangers, they were exactly what that banner tried to
refute: there were a rational outcome of the state of chaos, corruption and
overt militarilism that has plagued Palestinian society for years. Indeed,
they were from amongst us, and there is now denial in that.
In times like these, reporters care little for details, all they seek are a
few sound bites, preceded by an intense introduction and a snappy finish,
and consequently a TV news report is made. I had to accommodate. “These
kidnappers don’t represent the Palestinian people, and I call on the
Palestinian government to do its outmost to free Alan, whose professional
reporting and unprecedented objectivity is a rarity in the age of polarised
media,” I told a Spanish newspaper.
Then Alan’s family arrived; they were the most unthreatening and kind
looking group of people one can ever encounter. Alan’s father, Graham, an
older version of his son, dressed in a dark suit, with a belly sticking out
slightly, and a voice so proud, yet somehow broken. “Chin up, my son,” he
told Alan, hoping that the message would reach him somehow. Then to the
kidnappers, “You have family. Please think about what this is doing to my
family, including in particular the distress and deep concern Alan’s mother
and sister have had to endure for all these long weeks. As I have said
before, please let my son go now, today.”
A Palestinian, with links superior to mine in the Occupied Territories
leaned and whispered in my ear. “Why must these depraved individuals
(referring to the kidnappers) keep placing us in these tough spots? What is
even more bizarre about all of this is that everyone in Gaza knows who the
Everyone in Gaza knows, I was told, including the authorities, and even the
BBC received some heads up. He named names, elaborated on the demands of the
kidnappers, who belong to a powerful clan, affiliated with some people in
Fatah, the once leading Palestinian resistance movement which has slowly
evolved into a most impressive network of power-hungry batch of individuals,
factions, sub-factions, clans and so forth, a great source of national
fragmentation and political discord. It turned out that other people at the
press event had similar information. The kidnappers are apparently asking
for five million US dollars and loads of ammunitions. My friend believes
that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must agree to the demands, to keep
the rogue elements in his party in line; clan wars in Gaza tend to be
As journalists petered out, following Alan’s parents departure, and as
Trafalgar Square returned to its cheerful self, there was nothing left but
the large poster carrying Alan’s photo, which was unfurled earlier that day
and scores of doves reclaiming their space in centre stage.
How did we end up where we are? I asked myself as I too left the square and
Alan behind. How could our struggle for freedom, for justice and for rights
be so utterly reduced to an active state of civil war, factional clashes and
constant cries for aid, and how could our narrative, our entire narrative be
so effortlessly hijacked, and now dictated by mere gangsters, vying for
power and money?
Alan’s ordeal has lasted longer than other journalists and aid workers
kidnapped in Gaza since chaos ensued in the Strip nearly two years ago, but
most notably following the Hamas victory in January 2006. Israel ensured
that it left formidable allies in the area who acted on a whim to ensure
that Israel’s narrative prevails, even after its ‘withdrawal’ from the
devastatingly poor Strip. And so the narrative goes, Palestinians are not
capable of governing themselves, thus, in hindsight, four decades of Israeli
occupation is justified and Israel’s current illegal military occupation of
the West Bank and East Jerusalem is vindicated. Those allies held true to
their purpose, and had since then wreaked havoc.
The advent of Hamas, a well regarded and anti-corruption group changed
nothing; it in fact precipitated the political fragmentation that defined
the Palestinian struggle since the Oslo accords in 1993, and even before.
Israel’s active military onslaughts, since then, killing hundreds, and the
US political and economic embargoes weakened the Palestinian front like
never before. But the truth must be told: political cohesion was hardly a
quality that Palestinians had ever enjoyed. They were too vulnerable, too
receptive to pressure, which made their various leaderships, especially the
pro-Israel camp – as galling as this term may sound — as flexible as clay,
shaped by skilled Israeli hands and positioned wherever found fit.
But how can we claim that they are not from amongst us? How can we claim
that they don’t represent us if we lack the political will to confront them?
And when Alan is freed, as he must, who will free us, Palestinians, from
this destructive path on which we tread?
Trafalgar Square is so distant, teeming yet so lonesome, but Alan’s friendly
face continues to spur a sense of hope.
-Ramzy Baroud is an author and a journalist. His latest volume: The Second
Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press,
London) is available from Amazon and other book venues.