The hostages of Gaza

Rageh Omaar returns to Gaza to investigate the kidnapping of journalists there.

The Erez crossing into Gaza is a labyrinth of tunnels, turnstyles, scans and barriers [EPA]
The Erez crossing into Gaza is a labyrinth of tunnels, turnstyles, scans and barriers [EPA]

First person

Most journeys into Gaza start and finish through a long series of caged tunnels, turnstiles, electronic scans and security barriers.

Israel’s new multi-million dollar border post at Erez is symbolic of Gaza’s isolation, and despite withdrawing in 2005, it also symbolises Israel’s stranglehold over this tiny strip of land.

Anyone or anything that wants to get into or out of Gaza can only do so with Israel’s say so.

Despite decades of impoverishment and war, westerners were treated with respect, somehow above the fray. Kidnapping Westerners was unheard of. But all that changed in 2005.

Dion Nussenbaun

One man who knows first-hand about hostage-taking in Gaza is Dion Nussenbaum, one of the first journalists to be kidnapped.

“I actually like Gaza, a lot. It’s beautiful out there. If it wasn’t a war zone it could be a destination spot, where you could go and enjoy the beach, and hang out on the Mediterranean.

“There had been sporadic kidnappings or attempted kidnappings in years past, but basically during the period of the Israeli pullout things started to get a little bit squirrelly.

“But at the beginning … it was what I call, ‘Catch and Release’ – they would catch somebody for a few hours; hold them and then they would be released pretty quickly after negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. And a lot of times in that period most of the demands were pretty specific, they wanted relatives released from prison, they wanted some jobs, they had some grievances”.

Dion says the first kidnappings, like his, were born out of a sad desperation to get jobs, money and food, rather than ideology or radicalism: “So there we were, five in a car driving along the Mediterranean. It’s a beautiful afternoon on the beach.

“But as we’re driving, one of these long, orange taxi cabs, six doors, cuts us off and five or six masked gunmen get out and are coming towards us with machine guns.

“But in about five seconds it became clear. They weren’t there to check IDs but to kidnap.

Dion Nussenbaun after he was released

“I got out of the car as I was ordered to, and go with them. The translator is trying to negotiate with them a little bit, to come with us, but they refuse, so he comes over to the car as they’re driving away, and says, ‘OK, I think you are being kidnapped now’. I said: ‘Hey thanks Ziad, I think I figured that out’.
“I still have my phones with me. Adam still has his cameras. We were zipping away, and by now there were eight of us packed into this stretch taxi and we go zipping away but after about five minutes it becomes clear these guys are  amateurs, because we’re on a sandy road and after we reached a little traffic, the guy tried to go around the car in front, but because we’re on a sandy dune, the they get stuck in the sand. Five minutes into the kidnapping, big muscular militants, with machine guns, but their wheels are spinning, and at that point I would say my thoughts changed.

“After that, they spent about two hours trying to find a place to take us. Apparently they hadn’t worked that out, because they kept calling people and I’m sure the people were saying ‘No, you can’t take two kidnapped Westerners to my house!’

“They finally found a guy, who took us into his house, and it was this little, this very modest home, with babies sleeping on the cushion of this two-bedroom home.”

After only eight hours the Palestinian security service with the help of his translators, were able to identify Dion’s kidnappers negotiate their peaceful release and arrest those responsible.

The road south from Gaza City to Khan Younis takes you across a landscape which reveals Gaza’s economic imprisonment. In terms of basic indices it’s a land that belongs more to Africa than The Mediterranean Middle East.

According to US government and UN figures, Gaza’s per capita GDP at about $800. Israel’s is $28,000 dollars. This crushing poverty is one of the factors that forces unemployed Gazans into the arms of militants.

Colonel Taisir Jbour, the head of Force 17, negotiated release of Dion Nussenbaun

I went to Khan Younis to meet Colonel Taisir Jbour, the head of Force 17, the Palestinian security unit. It was he who negotiated Dion’s release:

“They would kidnap a foreigner and say, ‘I need jobs for ten of my friends’ – once someone said, ‘My house has been destroyed – I want the government to give me money to rebuild it.’ These were the kinds of demands that kidnappers had.

“Kidnapping was their way of getting the government’s attention.

“Now at this time, there were a lot of weapons around and security chaos, so we were always nervous

Taysir says Israeli attacks on Palestinian security forces only made things worse:

“There is no doubt that the bombardment of the security services, weakened us. Their bombardment of us with F16s created terrible conditions – it weakened us greatly and it prevents us from doing our job like before.”

So If the security services can’t protect themselves, how can they be expected to protect ordinary people?

And how can they be expected to free the one Westerner whose kidnapping had lasted longer than any other?

Given the enormous hardships Gazans face you would expect them to pay little attention to Alan Johnston’s plight. The remarkable thing is, they do care about him.

You see pictures of Alan Johnston all over Gaza City and when you see it for the first time, it’s really quite striking and of course what it reminds you is that this is the reaction to Alan’s case amongst the vast majority of ordinary Palestinians and what this says.

The Arabic script on the posters says: ‘Alan Johnston – we are sorry. Those who took you are not from us’

The Arabic script on the posters says: ‘Alan Johnston – we are sorry. Those who took you are not from us’.

The other reason it is so striking is that you see it amongst the pictures that are much more common, all the way through Gaza, in Gaza city and in the towns and cities in this area, which are of the martyrs – those who have lost their lives in the conflict with Israel and they are absolutely everywhere. They are in some ways a kind of sign posts of Gaza, and how this conflict has affected families up and down this territory.

Western journalists underestimate the extent to which Gaza is a clan-based society. Clan loyalties touch all aspects of life – from marriage to politics, business, crime – even Kidnapping.

Understanding clan power was the key to finding the men who kidnapped Alan Johnston, men who had warned against any attempt to rescue him by force, by showing Alan wearing a bomb belt normally seen on suicide bombers.

I travelled to the heavily guarded neighborhood of the Dughmush clan in Gaza city. They had been linked to the army of Islam, the group which claimed it was holding Alan.

It’s a measure of the power of clans in Gaza, that streets in the area had been cordoned off with concrete blocks and burnt cars giving it the feel of an urban fortress.

Sheikh Saleh is the clan head of 5,000 men, granted Rageh Omaar a rare interview

Sheikh Saleh is the clan head of 5,000 men, most of whom carry weapons and he granted me a rare interview.

I asked him about claims that his clan was linked to Alan Johnston’s kidnapping. The sheikh responds adamantly:

“I completely reject these allegations and if we felt that there is a one-in-a-million chance that this is correct, we would have found him wherever he was, because we have a reputation of our forefathers to protect the innocent.

I asked the Mukhtar what he would say if Alan Johnston’s father had appealed to him for help.

“I would tell them that I totally felt for them, that if it was my son who had been kidnapped,” he replied, “I too would feel devastated. Such things are unacceptable. I would open my home to them and if Alan’s father asks for help in finding his son, I would be ready to do whatever was asked of me.”

But he also felt that there was a double standard:

“The Israelis arrest people left, right and centre, using the excuse of terrorism. Half of them don’t have lawyers, and often no charges are officially filed. When one Westerner seems to be under threat the whole world stops and pays attention.”

The kidnappings in Gaza may have begun with simple demands for money and jobs, but they have also been carried out in the name of ideology.

In the far south of Gaza, I arranged to meet men who have kidnapped in the name of politics, not profit.

They were nervous, not because we were filming, but because 24 hours earlier, one of their commanders had been assassinated in an Israeli missile attack.

Ala’a al Homs, head of Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades

I spoke to the head of the Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades, Ala’a al Homs, who briefly came out of hiding to speak to me about his kidnapping of British aid worker Kate Burton and her parents. He now believes it was a mistake:

“There were tactics used that we now consider not well thought through and unsuccessful. These were what I think we can safely call moments of desperation. When people are drowning they hold on to a thread and I think the kidnappings were an expression of that. It was misguided thinking.”

Ala’a says he now believes kidnappings damaged the Palestinian case, but I asked whether he felt responsible for giving rise to the practice of kidnappers using the Palestinian cause as smoke screen, when the real motive was money.

“In the absence of the rule-of-law and a governing body that can apply that law, the non-stop Israeli attacks, destruction, assassinations and imprisonment – what do you expect the conditions here to be? Secure and prosperous? It’s natural that under these conditions chaos rules.

“Every time we are about to return to the rule of law by rebuilding the security apparatuses, all of the sudden there is a return of the Apaches. The warships reappear, and the assassinations resume. The Zionist camp is working very hard to keep us in disarray and chaos.

Throughout my journey in Gaza, people kept referring to life here as ‘like living in an open prison’.

It’s hard to convey the claustrophobic existence people here face; whilst northern Gaza is hemmed in by a towering concrete Wall, in the far south, on the border with Egypt, a vast metal barrier blocks the path to the outside world.

It feels more like a prison wall than an international border.

At the foot of the huge metal barrier I found a group of young boys trapping birds. It’s ironic that these fragile creatures, symbolizing freedom, are caught by young boys who are themselves caged in by a life from which they cannot flee.

Few parts of the entire Gaza strip are as desolate or bleak as this corner of Rafah – the result of repeated Israeli air attacks, thousands of homes were bulldozed by the Israeli army.

The residents here have nowhere else to go, so they live among the ruins.

Gaza is a place where every possible exit is blocked, and its flimsy infrastructure destroyed or left to decay.

Nowhere captures this sense more than Gaza’s airport.

Remnants of the Gaza International airport

I last saw Gaza’s airport six or seven years ago and, truth be told, it was not particularly busy back then but that never the point of it, because the airport represented something much more; it was Gaza’s window to the world and in that sense it was a small symbol of freedom.

In 2001 the Israeli air force bombed the runway and radar tower, rendering the airport inoperable but leaving room for repair.

But in 2006 Israeli ground forces over-ran the airport, during their summer invasion of Gaza, and left it in ruins.

Despite being locked in by Israel many Palestinians continue to enjoy Gaza’s most obvious natural gift, its Mediterranean beaches.

It’s a good place to come on a Friday afternoon to speak to ordinary Gazans.


Hussam Shanti is an unemployed father of three:

“First of all I find it interesting that the whole world is concerned about one person, but not about an entire people that are killed daily, that faces daily Israeli bombardment and missile strikes, they have closed off our access to the sea and they have closed off our borders – all access to life has been cut from the Palestinian people.

“Those who come here, whether journalists or visitors are ultimately our supporters, so what has happened is very bad and is in no way a reflection about how people here feel about the West or Westerners and we consider these people to be ‘not of us’; not members of the Palestinian people.”

Gaza’s is the ultimate hostage economy; beholden to the outside world for its survival.

Because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, the Jewish state has blocked the flow of goods from the outside world to the Gaza Strip, while the USA and the European Union have cut off the economic aid Gazans depend upon for survival.

Now international aid is pouring into the Fatah controlled West Bank, but none of it is allowed to reach Gaza.

American International School in Gaza

The American International School in Gaza may seem like an odd place to explore how kidnappings have affected Gaza, after all, this is a school which caters for the elite with the aim of producing the future leaders of Palestine.

You could be on any campus in the United States, but privilege has not protected the school from the kidnappers.

One of the school’s driving forces is principal Dr Ribhi Salem.

“The only time when they ever were subject to an attack was when we were attacked last year; a few masked militiamen or armed men stormed the school – during classes, that was the most traumatic experience.”

“They wanted to kidnap foreigners and we had 23 of them and they were specifically looking for Americans. Well my main concern at that time was to hide the principal – who was American and who had been kidnapped before and if he would have been kidnapped a second time it would have been very bad. So I took him and hid him somewhere in a dark storeroom and I locked it.”

He says that all the time he could hear people running through the school searching for him.

Principal of the American International School, Dr Ribhi Salem and Rageh Omaar 

“There was shooting and there was broken windows and in fact one of our kids was in grade 11 is white and she looked foreign and they wanted to take her, and for God’s sake – I am a Palestinian, my name is so-and-so – why are you taking me? They thought she is a foreigner and a teacher, because she is blond and big – quite big – so they thought she is a teacher. That is the worst experience we have been through as far as the kids are concerned.

“Those people want to close the place down. They told the guards at the entrance that they will stay as a ‘sword that is directed at the throats of the infidels and the atheists’.

“So they think we are promoting bad culture, we are promoting openness, we have a co-ed – where girls and boys come to our school and sit in one classroom – for some people that is bad.”

I asked him whether he was ever tempted to drop the title ‘American’ from the school?

“I was thinking of that last week and I was planning to propose it to the next board meeting, and we could call it the Gaza International School – but again that will not save us from being attacked.”

Despite being locked in by Israel many Palestinians continue to enjoy Gaza’s most obvious natural gift, its Mediterranean beaches

Returning to Gaza has felt like visiting a completely different country from the one I first saw as a young reporter ten years ago. Back then, even in the midst of Israel’s occupation, there was a sense of unity and optimism.

Little of that unity remains today. Days after I left Gaza, the hatred and rivalry between Hamas and Fatah exploded into vicious warfare as Hamas finally took control of Gaza.

The upheaval affected everyone I met during my journey

Colonel Taisir Jbour and his men were over-run and disarmed in the first hours of the Hamas takeover; they now live under self-imposed house arrest.

Ala’a al Homs and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades were allowed to keep their weapons and have particpated in resisting Israeli incursions into Gaza since the Hamas take over.

The fate of the American International School, where many students were children of Fatah officials that have fled Gaza, is uncertain under Hamas’ rule. Dr Ribhi Salem remains in Gaza City.

And of course, Alan Johnston is now finally free, but 1.5 million Gazans remain hostages in Gaza.

By leaving, we Westerners are in effect completing what the kidnappers have begun; the isolation of Gaza, a place where few voices are heard, except for those of the kidnappers.

















This Witness Special aired 4-5 July 2007.
Watch Part One here:

Watch Part Two here:

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Source : Al Jazeera


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