Johnston was kidnapped at gunpoint in Gaza City on March 12. His captors -- members of a radical, shadowy Palestinian group called the Army of Islam -- threatened days before his release "to slaughter him like sheep," and released a video clip in which he appeared with an explosive belt strapped to his body, to be detonated, his captors warned, if there was an attempt to rescue him by force.
Covering Gaza has become more and more dangerous. On Aug. 14, 2006, two journalists working for Fox News -- Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig -- were abducted by a group nobody had heard of before: the Holy Jihad Brigades. While Johnston's kidnappers demanded the release of prisoners associated with al Qaeda held in Jordan and the United Kingdom, the people who had abducted the Fox journalists demanded the release of prisoners held by the United States. For a change, Israel wasn't involved.
Targeting journalists has long been a common practice in the Arab Middle East. When Thomas Friedman was covering Lebanon for UPI in the early 1980s, Western reporters knew that at any given moment they could be either abducted or killed by one of the armed militias of Beirut. "Your newspaper would name a scholarship after you, and that would be the end of it. Any reporter who tells you he wasn't intimidated or affected by this environment is either crazy or a liar," wrote Friedman in his book, "From Beirut to Jerusalem."
After the Israeli pullout from Gaza two years ago, instead of a Palestinian nation-building thrust, the place has become a Beirut-like scene, with a weak (Fatah) central authority and armed militias calling the shots. With Hamas taking over Gaza by force recently, it seems as if some order has been restored. Indeed, by forcing the Army of Islam to release Johnston, Hamas has demonstrated that it is in charge -- or at least, the strongest militia in Gaza.
That is precisely the point. The Palestinians don't have a civil society -- they have a web of armed militias fighting each other, sometimes for ideological or religious reasons, and sometimes just for power and even greed. Every Palestinian in Gaza will tell you that the so-called Army of Islam is none other than the Doghmush clan, which simply makes a living out of kidnapping people for ransom.
Furthermore, Hamas itself is an armed militia that has toppled, by force, the lawful government in Gaza. Not to mention the fact that the Palestinian Authority has so many security services in the first place, sometimes conflicting with each other, and definitely not working together to maintain law and order.
Indeed, the Palestinians did go to the ballots, but it was only a facade of democracy: it was actually a contest between armed militias disguised as political parties, with few people really intending to peacefully accept the results of the elections.
When asked this week how the Palestinians could possibly have developed a civil society under Israeli rule, Shlomo Avineri, a world-renowned political scientist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, borrowed a page from the Palestinian history.
Following World War I, he said, when the British established the Mandate over Palestine, they allowed both the Jewish and the Arab (Palestinian) communities to establish their own respective institutions, under the British rule. The Jews right away created a nascent parliament, held elections and started building agencies that handled most public affairs, like education, settlement, etc.
The Arabs, on the other hand, appointed an assembly of notables, who were never elected and who did almost nothing for their public's good. And, during the Great Arab Revolt (1936-1939), more Arabs were killed by Arabs in the feud between the two Palestinian clans -- the Husseinis and the Nashashibis -- than in the fight against the British or the Jews. It seems that nothing is really new under the Palestinian sun.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is coming to the Middle East with an ambitious plan to revive the derailed peace process. We are told that his main focus will be the promotion of civil society among the Palestinians. We all keep our fingers crossed.
I only hope that there will still be foreign journalists around to report on accomplishments.
Uri Dromi is director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.
This article originally appeared in the Miami Herald.