Freed journalists: despair, then hope

The FOX News reporter and cameraman were released nearly two weeks after their kidnapping in Gaza.

Two journalists for the FOX News Channel, Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig, were released Sunday in Gaza after being kidnapped and held for almost two weeks in circumstances that remain as murky as the heretofore unknown group responsible for the abduction, the Holy Jihad Brigades.

The two men, elated and emotional after their release, told reporters at a brief press conference at the Beach Hotel in Gaza, where they had just been dropped off, that they hoped that their kidnapping would not keep other foreign journalists from coming to Gaza to cover the Palestinian story.

But their kidnapping and the uncertain events that led to their freedom has already caused most news organizations to keep their international staff out of Gaza and brought calls to reassess how to cover the story safely.

Officials at the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) said they had exerted "huge efforts" in recent days to secure the journalists' release, but still did not know exactly who was responsible for kidnapping the men.

The Interior Minister said Hamas officials had not had any direct contact with the kidnappers, but that the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC), an amorphous group of Palestinian militants from different factions, played an intermediary role in negotiating with the abductors.

The kidnapping was unprecedented in that it was the longest period of time foreign reporters have ever been held in Gaza. Moreover, several videos made of the men, in the style of those made by the Iraqi insurgency, were released to local and international news channels – another first in Gaza.

A video Thursday made a sweeping demand for the release of all Muslims held in American jails. That bumped up the usually localized focus of Gaza militants – the conflict with Israel – to the more international arena.

In the last video, which appeared on a Palestinian TV station several hours before Messrs. Centanni and Wiig were set free, the militants dressed the journalists in local Arab robes and said they had converted to Islam.

"We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint," Centanni said just hours after the release of that video, in an interview with FOX immediately following his release. He added: "I have the highest respect for Islam and have learned many things about it. It was something we felt we had to do because they had the guns and we didn't know what ... was going on."

Centanni described his captivity on a live FOX television program, still breathless in the first hour following their unexpectedly hasty release. He shed light on the nature of their ordeal and how significantly it differed from previous abductions of journalists in Gaza.

"We were driving down a narrow side street in Gaza City," Centanni recalled. "There was a car stopped in front of us, and before we realized what it was, four of them [gunmen] came over to our car, and stuffed us in the back seat of a tiny Toyota and flipped a black hood over our heads," he said. "We were crunched down toward the floor and they sped away."

Soon afterwards, he said, "they searched our pockets and took everything away ... they sat us down and tied our hands behind our backs really tight. That was just the beginning of our torment that night."

He said that later, they were moved in a different car "with our heads between our knees so we couldn't see where we were going." They drove for about 10 minutes, he said, and then heard a garage door rattling open. "Everything was pitch black for us anyway. We were roughly taken out of the car," he said, where they heard a generator roaring loudly.

"I was thinking, Oh God, OK, a remote warehouse with a loud generator. We're toast. They could easily shoot us and no one would hear us."

Then, said Centanni, his tendency toward positive thinking prevailed. "I'm no good to them dead," he recalled telling himself, "so I kept my hopes up."

That night, he said, the two men were forced to lie face down on a dirt floor with their arms tied behind them in a painful position for at least two hours. He called to Wiig, who had been lying nearby. "He said, 'Yeah, I'm here, and I hurt ... but I'm here.' " The militants then prevented them from speaking further.

Centanni said they were forced to make several videos, to describe what they had reported on in Gaza as well as in other countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and were instructed to write down their life stories.

"I'm emotional; because I'm so happy to be out," Centanni said. "There were times that I thought: I'm dead. And I'm not, thank God."

After their release Sunday, the two men met with Palestinian president Ismail Haniyeh, who had also held several meetings in the last few days with Wiig's wife, Anita McNaught, a broadcast journalist. Mr. Haniyeh and other Hamas officials, who have been ostracized by most Western countries following their election in January, have been keen to put their best foot forward in the crisis.

"I want to confirm that huge efforts were exerted in the last few days by the president, by the government, by the ministry of the interior, and by some other Palestinian actors – particularly our brothers in the Popular Resistance Committee – to convince the kidnappers not to harm the abducted men and to renounce their demands," said Sayeed Siam, the PA's Interior Minister, after the journalists' release.

He said that the PRC was not responsible, but had "managed to reach them and to have contacts with them," then added: "The abductors are Palestinians, after all. They're not from another planet." The quip was intended to dispel theories that that kidnapping might have been perpetrators by "outsiders," or militants from other Arab countries with ties to Al Qaeda.

Mr. Siam said that this and all kidnappings are counter to Palestinian mores and interests.

"We want to confirm that foreigners are guests in our country, as long as they don't interfere in our internal affairs," he said. "We hope these actions won't be repeated, because these damage the image of the Palestinians.

Alaa Husni, Gaza's police chief, blamed Israel for the deterioration of security conditions in the coastal strip. "The Israelis have been raiding and destroying the security institutions, then these institutions became weak and this lead to the security deterioration and the chaos," he said. "We hope that the kidnappers will give up, will not repeat an episode like this again."

But Mohammed Dahlan, who had been the security chief in Gaza when the PA was headed by the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, said the current government must take responsibility and reign in the lawlessness enveloping Gaza.

"Even Israeli journalists used to live here in peace and safety, and used to sleep in the Jabalya Refugee Camp in Gaza, and what we see now is a strange phenomenon," said Mr. Dahlan, who is now a Fatah party member of parliament from Gaza.

"We urge the government to implement an urgent plan to put an end to this phenomena and to punish those who stand behind it. The duty of the government is to deploy the police to bring more security for the Palestinians, who also don't feel safe anymore. It is now almost six months since the new government started to carry out its duties, and Palestinians cannot feel any difference for the better," he said.

Before they left Gaza, both of the freed journalists implored other foreign reporters not to abandon coverage of the area. "I just hope this never scares a single journalist away from coming to Gaza to cover this story because the Palestinian people are very beautiful, kind-hearted, loving people who the world needs to know more about," Centanni said.

Wiig, a freelance cameraman who works often with FOX, also said he feared their experience would dissuade many journalists from telling Gaza's tale.

"My biggest concern, really, is that as a result of happened to us, foreign journalists would be discouraged from coming here to tell the story and that would be a great tragedy to the people of Palestine and of Gaza in particular," Wiig said.

"Your story doesn't get very well told because it is difficult to work here," he told the hastily arranged press conference of primarily Palestinian reporters.

That difficulty and danger for journalists in Gaza was also apparent early Sunday when an Israeli airstrike injured two television cameramen working for Reuters. A missile struck their armored car, which the Israeli army said was acting suspiciously and had not been clearly identified as belonging to the media.

But the Foreign Press Association in Israel said in a statement Sunday the "assertion that the vehicle was acting suspiciously near Israeli forces is wholly unacceptable." They disputed the claim that the car was unmarked and called for an investigation into the incident.

With reporting by Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza.

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