Two Western journalists kidnapped in Gaza earlier this month were shown in footage released yesterday by a previously unknown group calling themselves the Holy Jihad Brigades.
In the footage, American correspondent Steve Centanni, 60, of Washington, D.C., and cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36, of New Zealand, both of Fox News, said they were being cared for and appealed for help in winning their release. The footage was the first sign of the journalists since they were captured August 14 from their car in Gaza City.
â€œOur captors are treating us well,â€ Centanni said. He added that the two had access to clean water, showers, bathrooms, food and clothing. â€œSo, just want to let you know I am here and alive and give my love to my family and friends and ask to do anything you can to try to help us get out of here.â€
The footage was accompanied by a statement issued by the Holy Jihad Brigades that railed against the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and characterised them as a war against Islam. It marked the first time a group in Gaza made demands on a foreign country other than Israel, which was not directly mentioned in the statement.
In the statement, the Holy Jihad Brigades demanded that Muslim prisoners in US jails be released within three days in exchange for Centanni and Wiig. The group did not say what would happen if the deadline passed unanswered.
â€œWe are going to exchange the Muslim female and male prisoners in American jails in return for the prisoners that we have. We are going to give you 72 hours, beginning midnight tonight, to take your decision,â€ the statement said. â€œIf you implement and meet our condition, we will fulfil our promise. If not, wait, and we are going to wait with you.â€
The abduction of the two journalists had already been a departure from previous kidnappings of foreigners in Gaza in the past two years, of which there have been over two-dozen. In previous cases, groups made themselves known early, and demanded either jobs or the release of relatives from Palestinian Authority jails. Abductees have normally been released within hours.
Furthermore, armed Palestinian groups have made it a point not to target non-Israelis for political ends, keen to position their struggle solely in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The fact that the Holy Jihad Brigades made no mention of Israel or the PA has led some to suspect that the group is not primarily Palestinian in make-up. Reports, primarily out of Israeli security services in the past year, have suggested that Al Qaeda was seeking to set up a base in the occupied Palestinian areas, and the groupâ€™s demands would seem to fit in with a more global jihadist outlook.
All other Palestinian groups have denied any link to the abduction, and leaders of all the major factions, from Fatehâ€™s Mahmoud Abbas to Hamasâ€™ Ismail Haniyeh have condemned the kidnappings and called for the journalistsâ€™ release.
Yesterday, Mushir Masri, a Hamas lawmaker, appealed to the kidnappers to release the journalists.
â€œThe kidnapping [of civilians] doesnâ€™t represent the Palestinian culture. The Palestinian people respect all countries of the world and takes no one as an enemy, except the Zionist enemy that occupies our land,â€ he said.
However, Masri said the US bore some responsibility for the abduction. â€œWe hold the Zionist enemy and the American administration responsible for such acts because of their unfair policies,â€ he said.
The release of the footage comes on a day when Abbas is convening two days of meetings of Fatehâ€™s Central Committee in Amman to discuss the possible formation of a national unity government with Hamas.
â€œPresident Abbas will brief the meeting on [contacts] he has had with all the factions, particularly Hamas, in order to reach a united format for the future government in which we hope all will take part,â€ Salim Zaanoun told AFP before going into the meeting.
â€œThe Fateh movement believes that we must achieve a national unity government in which all Palestinian factions are represented,â€ Zaanoun added.
Fateh officials said the Amman meetings will be an important cornerstone for the future of the movement, which Arab and Israeli analysts have said is heading towards disintegration.
â€œWe are going through difficult times,â€ former Palestinian prime minister and committee member Ahmed Qureia told reporters as he headed to the talks.
â€œWe need to put order in our internal affairs and this is what meetings are all about,â€ Qureia said. â€œWe will discuss the renewal of Fateh and its leadership and bringing in new blood into the movement and in light of that we will, perhaps, set a date for Fatehâ€™s 6th congress,â€ which last met in August 1989.
Fellow committee member Abbas Zaki said Fateh was hoping that Hamas will not impose its political programme on the Palestinian government, pointing to Hizballahâ€™s behaviour after its monthlong war with Israel.
â€œWe are not asking Hamas to recognise Israel but we are calling on Hamas to emulate the victorious Hizbollah, which placed its victories [against Israel] at the service of united Lebanese interests,â€ said Zaki. â€œWe are asking of Hamas national unity… and that it leaves to the government its international agreements and the Arab peace initiative,â€ he said.