More than most journos, the BBC’s Alan Johnston has had his close-up with the imbalance between Israeli fortunes and those of the Palestinians.
But the reporter, who refused to cover Gaza from the comfy confines of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or, worse still, rely on Al Jazeera footage, was also the subject of a real-life drama few TV thrillers could match.
One day in March 2007, Johnston was snatched from his car by a shadowy band of kidnappers belonging to the Army of Islam and was kept in a three-month captivity that had the world on the edge of its seat.
Johnston’s appearance in Toronto Wednesday, April 30, at a gathering hosted by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression was his thank-you to supporters here who joined others around the planet to press for his safe release.
“It was one of the most moving things I have ever known,” says a gracious Johnston on the phone from London, where he now works in the relatively safe environs of Bush House, home of BBC World Service radio. “So many people stood up for me. It was extraordinary.”
But nowhere was the support more generous than in Gaza itself, where not only Palestinian journalists but also the citizenry turned out day after day to demand the release of the only Western journalist who had told their story while living among them.
As well as a kidnap drama, Johnston’s story is about the limits of knowing in a place as complicated as Gaza, even for someone who lives there 24/7. And in a perverse irony, the only Western journalist in the Palestinian enclave had to follow the most significant development in the Palestinian struggle since the death of Yasser Arafat with the rest of us on BBC World Service radio.
We’re talking about that night in June of last year when Hamas pulled off a military putsch that sent Fatah packing from Gaza. Lying in his bedroom jail, Johnston tried to follow events, listening to the fiercest bombardment he’d heard in a place where a nighttime symphony of small-arms fire is as normal as the sound of crickets.
It was the Hamas takeover that inevitably set the stage for Johnston’s release.
“Hamas delivered the knockout blow, and the first thing they said was that they would free me,” Johnston recalls. But was he a step closer to freedom or to death?
Soon after Hamas announced its intentions, his kidnappers decked him out in an explosives-filled suicide jacket and paraded him before TV cameras as a warning of what would happen if Hamas or anyone else tried to spring him. “I was worried that in any rescue I might not make it,” Johnston recalls.
But Hamas did prevail, and its prize was having its Gaza chief bring a freed Johnston before a relieved press corps, a public relations victory that allowed the organization to show that Fatah lawlessness was history and the Palestinian territory was under new management.
Although his three-year stint reporting in Gaza ended with a bang, Johnston had otherwise been in sync with his neighbours.
“Living a Gazan experience, I was there for every Israeli raid and I was under every Israeli sonic boom, just like the Gazans,” Johnston says.
BBC listeners will remember Johnston’s distinctive voice – higher-pitched than the standard broadcast bass – and his on-the-ground reporting of what passes for ordinary life there.
“I tried to cover the conflict in a way that people can relate to,” he says. “Gaza is more than a conflict. There are people studying, starting careers, opening shops, getting married and having kids. They’re making their way in an extraordinary setting.”
Perhaps it’s because he has this unique vantage point that he offers as much equivocation as journalistic certainty. He admits, for example, that there was much that eluded him about Gazan politics, even after breathing its air for so long.
“I always found it quite hard to understand the factions within Hamas,” which, like any political outfit, is filled with hard-liners and moderates, the former now in the ascendancy.
Then there are those rockets fired regularly from northern Gaza into southern Israel. Is that the work of Hamas? I ask him.
“It often wasn’t directly Hamas,” he says. “It was more likely Islamic Jihad or occasionally and somewhat ironically the Al Aqsa Brigades, which are aligned with Fatah” – Israel’s supposed partners in peace.
“It’s important to say the rocket fire is feeble and usually does little damage,” Johnston says, “though it’s meant to kill, especially when it involves the bombardment of urban areas. But to focus only on the rocket fire is not useful in understanding the desperate need to find a political solution to a problem.”
As Johnston points out, “Eighty per cent of the residents of Gaza are refugees who are embittered by the loss of Jaffa,” the Arab settlement that’s now an artsy suburb of Tel Aviv, an hour up the Mediterranean coast.
As well as posing a political challenge, Gaza poses a moral one. “One people has a state, one does not,” Johnston says. “One people is occupied, the other is not.”
Parachute journalists shy away from that part of the story. Johnston couldn’t, because he lived it.