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Freedom for Alan Johnston

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Issue: 45 Section: Opinion Geography: Middle East Palestine Topics: civil liberties

April 28, 2007

Freedom for Alan Johnston

Freedom for Us All

by Ramzy Baroud

A vigil for kidnapped BBC journalist Johnston in Brussels. When Johnston is freed, asks Ramzy Baroud, who will free the Palestinians? CC 2.0 Photo: quarsan

In Trafalgar Square in London, dozens of journalists representing every major news organization 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. The gathering took place one month after his ordeal began.

Awaiting the arrival of Alan’s family to a press conference organized by Reporters without Borders, I stood alongside 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 the banners held by hundreds of journalists gathering in Ramallah in the West Bank in a show of support for 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; they were a rational outcome of the state of chaos, corruption and overt militarism that has plagued Palestinian society for years. Indeed, they were from amongst us, and there is now denial of that.

In times like these, reporters care little for details. All they seek are a few soundbites, 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 utmost to free Alan, whose professional reporting and unprecedented objectivity is a rarity in the age of polarized media,” I told a Spanish newspaper.

Then Alan’s family arrived; they were the most unthreatening and kind-looking group of people one could ever encounter. Alan’s father, Graham, an older version of his son, dressed in a dark suit, his belly sticking out slightly, and a voice 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 kidnappers are.”

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 belonged to a powerful clan, affiliated with some people in Fatah, the once-leading Palestinian resistance movement which slowly evolved into an impressive network, a 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 $5 million US 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 politically taxing.

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 at 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 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, and 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 have wreaked havoc since the withdrawal.

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 Hamas's electoral victory, have killed 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 they were most useful.

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 be, 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 booksellers.

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