Kidnapping signals rising threat in Gaza

Abducted last monday, Olaf Wiig and Steve Centanni were among the few foreign journalists working in Gaza.

Busy with the war in northern Israel and Lebanon, most foreign reporters in the region had all but neglected volatile Gaza.

But two journalists from the FOX News Channel decided it was too important to ignore. Last Monday, US correspondent Steve Centanni and his cameraman, New Zealander Olaf Wiig, were working on a story when they were seized from their vehicle somewhere near the Palestinian security services headquarters in Gaza City.

They have not been heard from in more than a week. And in an unprecedented turn for journalists covering Palestinian affairs in Gaza, no group has stepped forward to claim responsibility or to set conditions for release. Officials at the interior ministry of the Palestinian Authority (PA), one of the offices leading the investigation, say that their leads in the case have nearly run dry.

"Unfortunately, the leads we got in the first few hours led to nothing," says Khaled Abu Hilal, the spokesman of the PA's interior ministry. "We received information about the type of car, and we moved on this information but it led to nothing."

The two journalists and a security assistant were in one of the safer places in Gaza – near the Palestinian security services – when two trucks of masked gunmen pulled up and blocked their passage. Mr. Centanni and Mr. Wiig were dragged from the car, a sports utility vehicle marked "TV" – a common feature of journalists' vehicles here – and driven away.

"Since the kidnapping, all the security apparatuses have mobilized with all of their power and have even established checkpoints on the roads," in an effort to apprehend the men, Mr. Abu Hilal says. "A wide search operation has started, but regrettably, without any result."

Interior ministry officials say the fact that the two men were taken by operatives who have managed to keep their identity and location secret, a rare phenomenon in intimate and dense Gaza, indicates a higher level of expertise than in previous kidnappings.

Over the past few years there have been several incidents of kidnapping foreign journalists, but in most cases, the reporters were released unharmed within 24 to 48 hours. A year ago Tuesday, French-Algerian journalist Mohammed Ouathi, a sound man for French TV, was freed after nine days in captivity in Gaza. Reporters for US media outlets such as Newsweek, CNN, and the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain have been the target of kidnappings in Gaza over the past few years. But in most of the cases, the kidnappers' goals were deemed to be primarily of internal interest: motivated by rivalries between different Palestinian factions or even demands for pay and jobs.

A spokesman for the PRC, or Popular Resistance Committee, an interfactional group that was rumored to be involved in the kidnapping of Centanni and Wiig, denied any involvement.

"We have confirmed many times that foreign journalists are not to be attacked. On the contrary, we should protect them, because they work very hard to reveal the real image of the Palestinians, and what happened really damaged the image of the Palestinians," says Abu Mujahid, a spokesman from the group, using an apparent nickname, which means father of one who wages holy war, or engages in religious struggle. "We have even offered security officials all our means and abilities to finding out who is behind this and to release them."

Security conditions in Gaza have gradually deteriorated since the start of the year. After Hamas, the Islamic militant group, was elected in a landslide victory in January, the US and many European countries froze diplomatic relations, financial assistance, and other aid projects in the Palestinian territories. The effort to isolate Hamas has caused increased economic and social instability, and led to increasingly high levels of anti-Western sentiment.

Soon after the Palestinian parliamentary elections, the worldwide controversy over a series of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad led to riots in Gaza that targeted international offices. Since then, many Western countries have pulled their nationals out of Gaza and have not allowed them to return.

More recently, parts of Gaza have become a more perilous battlefield in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On June 25, Palestinian guerrillas connected to Hamas tunneled from Gaza into Israel and killed two soldiers, capturing a third, Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Soon after, Israel launched an ongoing military offensive in Gaza, aimed both at gaining Corporal Shalit's release and at stopping the launching of Kassam rockets into southern Israel.

That war, which has gradually fallen off the front pages as the even deadlier Israeli-Hizbullah war took the spotlight, has included Israeli-Palestinian gunbattles as well as aerial attacks by Israel. Amid the violence, Gaza has seen an even larger exodus of foreigners from the coastal territory.

Despite this, the level of perceived danger for reporters or other foreigners, such as aid workers, has not risen to anything like that faced by foreigners working in Iraq. Most journalists have not substantially changed how they travel in Gaza and do not work with professional security teams as do most foreign media organizations in Baghdad.

The families of the two men have begun to make television appeals, mostly through international Arabic channels such as Al Jazeera, expressing their desire to see their loved ones released unharmed.

"Gaza needs journalists here," says Anita McNaught, the wife of Wiig and herself a broadcast journalist for the BBC. "These two men were here by choice and working very hard to tell the Palestinian story to a wider audience. I cannot for the life of me see what gains anyone makes by this. It's tragically misguided."

A multicountry combined effort is under way to free the journalists. "The US government strongly condemns the kidnapping of these journalists. We are concerned about their safety and we are hopeful of their safe release," says Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, spokeswoman for the US consulate here.

"We will continue to work with Palestinian officials to ensure the safe release of these journalists, who were in Gaza to tell the Palestinian story to the world," Ms. Schweitzer-Bluhm says.

With additional reporting by Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza.

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