In Gaza, colleagues boycott for missing BBC journalist

They're refusing to report on all official bodies of the Palestinian Authority in an attempt to force leaders to secure Alan Johnston's release.

International and local journalists stepped up efforts Monday to win the release of Alan Johnston, a BBC reporter who was kidnapped from his car at gunpoint in the Gaza Strip three weeks ago.

Palestinian journalists began a three-day boycott on Monday against reporting on all official bodies of the Palestinian Authority in an attempt to force Palestinian leaders to secure Mr. Johnston's release.

Johnston was about to end his three-year-long posting in the coastal Palestinian territory, where he was the only remaining Western reporter and was well-respected among his colleagues for his dedication.

Although 11 other foreign journalists have been abducted in Gaza, none has been held this long. Particularly troubling is the lack of direct contact with the kidnappers or conditions for his release.

Palestinians say that this points toward a kidnapping ring that is largely criminal in nature. Palestinian and Western political sources say that the kidnapping was perpetrated by members of the Dogmoush family, an armed clan that vacillates between loyalty to Fatah and Hamas and is connected to a militant network called the PRC, or Popular Resistance Committee. The clan was widely thought to be responsible for the abduction last summer of two Western reporters from Fox TV, though no arrests were made.

With weak security in the territories, there is no disincentive against the potentially lucrative kidnapping of foreigners. Different militias and clans also see such radical actions as a way to gain "sponsorship" from the national unity government in the form of police and security-forces jobs. Arms and cash accompany such positions.

Some say that it's not accurate to dismiss the activity as solely criminal. Mumtaz Dogmoush was the head of the Islamic Army, which is believed to be behind the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit from Israel last June. The Dogmoush family controls the heavily armed Sabre section of Gaza.

"This group wants to be sponsored, and they're already a very powerful hamule [clan]," says a Palestinian source who asked not to be named. "They'll be on the side of whoever will join them. So they're now flashing to everyone, 'We're here!' They're one of the most powerful, they can kill anyone they want."

Critics say the kidnapping has come at a time when Palestinian politicians are absorbed with fast-moving events – the formation of the unity government, the visits of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, and the Arab Summit last week. "It's been silence since Alan's kidnap, and that kind of thing is worrying," says Simon McGregor-Wood, chairman of the Foreign Press Association, which held a protest rally Monday in Ramallah alongside the Palestinian Journalists' Syndicate.

Monday, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said that officials were not taking the situation lightly, and would try to deal with those trying to achieve Johnston's release.

"The concern here," Mr. McGregor-Wood says, "is that for whatever reason, to do with the complex moment we're now in, Alan may be becoming part of the wider game, and that may point to a long-term detention."

The FPA has warned its members of information it has of militants' intentions to kidnap more foreigners, particularly journalists. Foreign aid organizations and the UN have drastically reduced their staff in Gaza. Two weeks ago, militants fired 11 shots at the armored car of John Ging, field director of the UN Relief and Works Agency in a failed attempt to kidnap him.

As a result, many aspects of Palestinian life go unreported. "People don't want to get kidnapped reporting 'just a feature,' but those are the kind of stories that really tell people what's happening," McGregor-Wood says.

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