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Last Updated: Monday, 29 October 2007, 12:02 GMT
Alan Johnston answers your questions
Alan Johnston
The BBC's former Gaza correspondent answers your questions about his time as a hostage.

Alan Johnston was held captive for 114 days by Palestinian militants in Gaza. Last week he published, for the first time, a full account of his experiences.

Q: You said at one point your guard became lax and left your door unlocked for you to use the kitchen and bathroom. Did you ever think about escaping or trying to overpower the guard?
Richard Elliot, Bournemouth, England

I did think a huge amount about the possibility of escaping. At times I was almost obsessed by the subject. But actually I never really came close to an attempt. Perhaps, subconsciously, I just wasn't brave enough to try. But I really did keep concluding that a bid to get away wouldn't work.

I am not at all a violent person, and my guards were tough, urban guerrillas. I was sure that if there was any violence, I would come second.

Perhaps the chances for an escape were best in the second hideout. But even there, in the unlikely event of my being able to overpower a guard, I never knew where they kept the key to the crucially important front door of the flat. And then even if I had got out, I was in a neighbourhood that was tightly controlled by the clan that was working with my guards.

It was not an area where a Westerner would go unnoticed. I felt sure that I would have been caught again in the streets.

And you have to think hard about the consequences of a failed escape attempt. I might well have been beaten. I might have had my jaw broken, or a couple of ribs cracked, and that sort of injury might have amounted to a death sentence given that there would never be any medical help. At the same time my treatment after any failed escape bid would surely have been much harsher.

It is easy to imagine that I would have been chained up from then on, and that could have become very hard to endure if my incarceration had gone on for years.

Q: Did you change your opinion of Gaza people after being kidnapped?
Safete, Prishtina, Kosovo

There is much more to my experience of Gaza than my kidnapping. I lived there before it for three years, during which time I came to know the extraordinary capacity of Palestinians for hospitality and kindness to strangers.

I knew that the behaviour of my captors was far removed from normal Gazan culture and tradition. A few times I felt that even my guards were a little embarrassed by what they were doing.

During my captivity I was able to follow on a radio the efforts being mounted to try to secure my release, and nowhere was the campaign more intense than in Gaza and the West Bank.

The vast majority of Palestinians seemed to condemn strongly what the Army of Islam had done. From Jenin to Rafah, people took to the streets in my support.

I am especially grateful to the Palestinian journalists who led the campaign with such determination. Astonishingly, in the fifth week of my captivity, they even fought with police as they tried to storm parliament during a protest.

If anything, I emerged from this affair with a higher opinion of the great masse of Palestinian people.

Q: Do you think that you would have been freed as quickly and unhurt, without the intervention of Hamas?
Frank Barat, London

There are some people who claim that Hamas orchestrated my kidnapping as a kind of vast publicity stunt. But I don't believe that. And perhaps what separates me from the conspiracy theorists is that I was on the inside, and able to watch the kidnappers close up as they reacted to the mounting Hamas pressure.

A map showing Gaza and Gaza City

One of Gaza's most notorious clans, the Doghmush, was central to my abduction. It hosted in its neighbourhood, and protected and led the jihadist group, the Army of Islam, which actually held me.

The Doghmush had certainly been allied with Hamas in the past, but at the time of my kidnapping the clan and the faction were locked in the most bitter blood feud that I had seen in my time in Gaza. Hamas men had killed several Doghmush in cold blood at a checkpoint just before Christmas. In response the Doghmush were demanding the deaths of a number of Hamas members.

Given that background there was bound to be extreme tension between the clan and the faction once Hamas had dispensed with its rival, Fatah, and taken complete control of Gaza in late June. And for many reasons Hamas needed to show quickly that it could deliver what it would regard as law and order.

It had to show that it really was in charge. My kidnapping was a kind of test, and if Hamas couldn't solve it, it would have sent a bad signal. The message to other clans or militias would have been that if you are tough enough you can run your own little corner of Gaza and do what you like - that Hamas can tolerate no-go areas.

And in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas takeover - in the hideout - I saw signs of real concern among the kidnappers. There was an angry, rather panicky letter to me from the leader of the gang.

The group was clearly worried that Hamas knew where I was being held and planned to storm the apartment. That was when I had to make a video dressed in a suicide bomber's vest and say that if the building was attacked I would be blown up.

Gaza City
Gaza has a population of 1.5m

Soon afterwards I was moved to what the group felt was a more secure apartment block, and there were clear preparations for a showdown. A machine gun nest was set up immediately under my room, and Hamas and the Army of Islam skirmished.

My guard told me that his brother had been arrested and flung in jail by Hamas as it sought to gain leverage and bargaining chips. And later the same man was clearly shocked by a major Hamas sweep that had led to the capture of several more people associated with the group - including the brother of one of the leaders.

In addition we believe that the most senior figure in the Doghmush clan linked to the kidnap was injured in a firefight with Hamas men during the abduction.

There are many people who would argue that the Hamas take over of Gaza was damaging in a variety of ways. But in terms of my kidnapping, I think that transformation of the political scene was the key factor in creating the conditions in which I could be freed.

Q: Did you seek God at any point during your ordeal?
Tara, Oxford

As moving as anything in this whole affair was the number of people of all faiths who supported me. So many have said that I was in their prayers. I am truly grateful for their compassion, and who knows quite what influence it may have had on my fate.

I struggle to believe that God does closely manage our lives

We live surrounded by mystery, and so much that is unknowable. But when people show concern for the suffering of a stranger, then I think that they are acting in the best spirit of all the great religions.

As for me, I was not praying before I was captured, and I did not feel that it would be right to start just because I was in trouble.

I think that in a situation like that, you have to hope that you have treated other people decently, and tried to live a good life, before disaster struck. And if you have, perhaps a God of mercy and love will come to your aid.

But in my work I have seen a great deal of suffering endured by entirely innocent people. And to be honest, I am afraid that it has left me struggling to believe that God does closely manage our individual lives.

Q: How has your experience shaped your views on the Palestinian problem? Do you think there is a solution?
John Craig, Glasgow

For a century or more, this has been a dispute over the control of the narrow strip of land that stretches from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. If the Israelis were to withdraw from every inch of occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians would be left with about 22% percent of that land. The Israelis would have 78% percent.

Every time you see an American president sit down with the two sides to talk peace, the question is largely about how much of that 22% the Palestinians should be allowed to have - and under what conditions.

I tend to feel that the Israelis will never really give enough - or be forced by their American friends to give enough. And for at least some angry young Palestinians, 22% could never be enough. They would want to fight on for much more.

I think that they would be hard to rein in, and in the poverty, despair and oppression of the occupation, the ranks of the radicals are only likely to grow.

Set against that, most people on both sides do want an end to the conflict - a settlement that might allow their children to live in peace and prosper. So, perhaps there is hope - "God willing", as they say in Palestine.

Q: You were forced to make a blatantly anti-Israel broadcast by your kidnappers. Assuming the words you stated were not yours, are there any amendments you would like to make?
Steve Hudson, London

One of the bleaker episodes during my incarceration surrounded my having to make a political statement on camera. The guards came into my room at about three in the morning with a letter from the leader detailing what I had to say.

I did try to obstruct the process. I made a very brief statement that I read in a halting manner, trying to make clear that I was speaking under duress.

A still from a video released by Army of Islam showing Alan Johnston
The Army of Islam released two videos of Alan Johnston

The guards took the tape away to show the leader, and he obviously did not like what he saw. The next night the guards came back and said that I had to make a new, much fuller and more convincing statement. They said I had to "co-operate if I wanted my freedom". I knew they held all the cards, and I had little choice.

My view was anyway that any sensible person knows that video statements made by kidnap victims are always done under conditions of extraordinary duress. I do not imagine that many people take the words spoken very seriously.

On camera I talked of arrests and killings of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli forces. And of course during my time in Gaza I had indeed seen much suffering, including the shooting of children, the demolition of homes and the destruction of farmland. However I wasn't able, in my video, to set the conflict in any context. The Jihadis only wanted me to air their view.

For example, many Israeli army raids into Gaza are aimed at stopping the almost daily rocket fire. Palestinian militants launch crudely made devices that occasionally injure or kill people in Israeli towns and villages just across the border. This constitutes random bombardment of civilians, and it is clearly a war crime. The Israeli army's response often amounts to collective punishment - which is another kind of war crime.

But again, there is a wider context. The militants in Gaza often say that their attacks come in response to Israeli army actions in the West Bank. For more than 40 years the Israelis have sought to consolidate their occupation there and in East Jerusalem.

Pretty much every day there are Israeli army raids and arrests, and often militants and civilians are killed. The Palestinian camp often suggests that the conflict would stop if the occupation were to end. And it is the great hope of many neutral observers that such a deal can be struck and made to stick - and perhaps it can.

The Jihadis were not very interested in the wider context, but, unfortunately, neither are some Israelis

The difficulty may well be though, that even if there was a complete Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza it would not be enough for at least some of the militants who fire rockets from Gaza into Israel. They seek - ultimately, perhaps in generations to come - Israel's destruction.

And although those forces may be weak now, if you know something of the history of the Jewish people, you can understand why many Israelis view the militant threat with deep concern.

Many of those Gazan militants firing rockets into Israel come from refugee families. In the course of the struggle between Zionist and Arab forces they lost their homes in what is now Israel. And as those young Palestinians have grown up - leading stunted, blighted lives in the camps of Gaza - they have had to watch Jews from all over the world come and settle on what used to be the lands of their fathers.

Those Jewish families have come from Russia, and France and Argentina believing that in the days of Moses God gave them the right to live in the Land of Israel, and swell the numbers of their people who have maintained some presence there since Biblical times.

But those Jewish religious claims mean nothing to Palestinians. They see themselves as the victims of a vast injustice that has robbed them of their birthright. They too believe that God, history and destiny are on their side.

There then, is just some of the background to the conflict. Of course I was not able to give it in the video that my captors forced me to make. The Jihadis were not very interested in the wider context, but, unfortunately, neither are some Israelis.

Q: After this terrible experience, will you continue reporting from the Middle East? If not, what's next for you?
Christopher Hepburn, Guelph, Canada

There was one night during my captivity when I listened on the radio to the BBC reporting claims that I had been executed. In the hours afterwards, I lay in the dark waiting to see if I might indeed be put to death.

Photo: BBC/PA
Alan with his mother Margaret

And I came to feel that I had pushed things in Gaza to the limit, and beyond. I felt that if I survived I would need to step back a little, and think hard about how and where I work, and how I lead my life.

And I guess that is what I am doing now. I will stay in journalism - and hopefully, the BBC - and perhaps I will eventually return to places like Gaza, and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But the kidnap took quite a lot out of me, and for the moment at least, I need to regain my strength a little. And just right now, it does feel good to be back in England - and very, very good to be free.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Alan Johnston speaks about his abduction





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