Alan Johnston, the BBC's Gaza correspondent who was held hostage for nearly four months by Islamic terrorists before being freed in July, is probably the first kidnap victim to develop Stockholm syndrome before being abducted. His solidly pro-Palestinian reporting made him an unlikely target for the militants, and as Melanie Phillips has written, his kidnapping was very likely staged as a prelude to Hamas’s takeover of Gaza a few weeks later.
That’s not to belittle Johnston’s ordeal. But the way the BBC has milked the episode to wallow in self-importance, and generally promote its global brand, leaves a nasty taste in the mouth – to say nothing of its kid-gloves approach to the terrorists of Hamas in the months since.
The Beeb is in full Johnston-mania mode this week, and aired an hour-long Panorama documentary on the kidnapping last night. It was typical of what passes for current affairs on BBC1 these days, mixing slick production values with superficial analysis, and stuck to the simplistic line that Johnston was kidnapped by rogue Islamists and/or criminals, before being rescued by that paragon of law and order, Hamas.
So we had Johnston being interviewed, with no end of nods and winks, by the smooth-but-serious Jeremy Vine in, for some reason, a very large empty warehouse; frantic point-of-view shots as we raced through the streets of Gaza; a raven appearing every now and then to symbolise menace. And most bizarrely, every time the prospect of Johnston’s death was raised, we got a sequence ripped off from Gladiator, showing a woman trailing her hand through a field of tall grass.
But for all its silliness, the programme at least steered clear of the broader politics of the Middle East, a temptation that Johnston was unable to resist in a radio program which also aired yesterday, and the text of which is on the BBC’s website. Slipping effortlessly back into the language he employed as Gaza correspondent, Johnston makes excuses for his kidnappers, implicitly pins the blame for his ordeal on Israel, and even manages to get in a swipe at the US.
Here’s Johnston’s inevitable romanticising of one of his captors:
Like many young men who I had met in Gaza, Khamees was the son of a family that had either fled or been driven from their home in what is now Israel.
He had been raised in the poverty of one of Gaza's intensely crowded cities, and been drawn to the militant groups that had fought the occupying Israeli army.
Khamees had matured into a battle-hardened urban guerrilla.
The BBC’s reporters have come up with no end of weasel words to describe Palestinian murderers over the years, but I thought ‘urban guerilla’ had gone out with flares and disco. And as Khamees apparently belonged to an fringe Islamic group, rather than Fatah or Hamas, I’m not sure which ‘battle’ Johnston thinks he was ‘hardened’ in – perhaps the Battle of Mahmoud’s Barber Shop, when Mahmoud was given a good beating for offering un-Islamic beard trims – or the Battle of Ali’s Video Store, when Khamees and his comrades succeeded, in the face of overwhelming odds, in shoving Mahmoud’s mother out of the way, knee-capping Mahmoud and torching his collection of decadent Western movies.
And you'd think that an authority on the Middle East such as Johnston would be well aware that most of the Arabs who were displaced at the time of the creation of Israel in 1948 either left of their own accord or were told to leave by the invading Arab armies (Alan Dershowitz has a chapter on the 'refugees' in his book The Case for Israel, and there's a good collection of mea culpas from Arab sources here). As for the 'occupation', Johnston might have mentioned that the Gazans were perfectly happy to be occupied by Egypt until the Arab nations' second failed attempt to destroy Israel; they're not against occupation per se – they just prefer to choose their occupiers.
For all Johnston knows, Khamees could have been born and raised in Gaza. He may not even be a Palestinian. Johnston is probably just throwing in a bit of colour here to give his captors a human face, along with an excuse for their brutality to boot: it’s all down to Israeli aggression, and Israeli-inflicted poverty.
And a little later, Johnston recounts how he was able to cheer himself up by putting his ordeal into context:
But the fact was that I had not been killed, and I was not being beaten around.
I was being fed reasonably, and I decided that my conditions could have been much, much worse.
Whatever else it was, my Gazan incarceration was not what Iraqi prisoners had been forced to endure at Abu Ghraib jail.
It was not the Russian Gulag, and it certainly was not the Nazi death camps.
Dreadful as Abu Ghraib was, to talk about what happened there in the same breath as the Gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps – and in fact to focus on the former while adding the latter horrors as an afterthought – is taking moral equivalence to extremes.
Johnston might argue that he was simply looking to provide context. If so, he could have chosen three far more appropriate examples: Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who are being held captive by Hezbollah, and Gilad Shalit, who remains a prisoner of Johnston’s ‘liberators’, Hamas. All three have been held for over a year, probably not far from where Johnston was confined, and you might think that their fates would have been on his mind in the months he’s had to reflect on his own ordeal.
But in the inverted moral universe of Alan Johnston and the BBC it’s the murderers and kidnappers of Gaza who are the good guys, and the Israelis and the Americans who are to blame for everything that’s wrong in the Middle East. Johnston and other reporters often fret over the lack of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it might help matters if they stopped making excuses for terrorists and started reporting the truth.