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Kidnapped Journalists Released in Gaza, Violence Continues

August 28, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Next, in Gaza, the Mideast conflict that kept on going even as attention moved on to Lebanon. Jeffrey Brown begins with the hostage release story in Gaza.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was chaos, then cheers… and lots of cameras in the first moments of freedom for two FOX News journalists who were released yesterday after being kidnapped and held by a previously unknown group in Gaza for 13 days.

STEVE CENTANNI, FOX News Correspondent: I’m not used to being on this side of the news story, and not one instead of one covering the news.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a phone interview with FOX News, correspondent Steve Centanni explained what happened when he and cameraman Olaf Wiig were taken at gunpoint from their car.

STEVE CENTANNI: He sat us down and tied our hands behind our backs really tightly with these plastic ties, and I still have some sore wrists. It was digging into my wrists really badly, but that was just the beginning of our torment.

JEFFREY BROWN: The two gained their freedom after being forced at gunpoint to say on videotape that they had converted to Islam. Despite the ordeal, both urged other journalists to keep coming to Gaza.

STEVE CENTANNI: I just hope this never scares a single journalist away from coming to Gaza to cover this story.

OLAF WIIG, Freelance Cameraman: And that would be a great tragedy for the people of Palestine, and especially for the people of Gaza. Your story doesn’t get very well told because it is difficult to work here.

International attention in Gaza

JEFFREY BROWN: The Palestinian government confirmed that no arrests had been made in the kidnappings.

The kidnapping came amid continuing violence in Gaza between Israeli forces and Palestinians and contention among Palestinian political groups. For more on the situation, we go to Washington Post correspondent Doug Struck. He's in Jerusalem, having just returned from Gaza.

Doug, the kidnapping has been the one story that has gotten international attention in Gaza, so help us fill in the picture, first about the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.

DOUG STRUCK, Washington Post Correspondent: Yes, the kidnapping sort of riveted the attention of the world and said, "Hey, the situation in Gaza Strip is still going on." In fact, almost on a daily basis, there are skirmishes or clashes of some sort or another.

Israel has its military camped outside the Gaza Strip. They use artillery and F-16 bombers in what they call pinpoint attacks. When they know or they believe they know of a militant inside the Gaza Strip, they go in with tanks and armored vehicles. This always causes a fusillade of arms fire in which there's undoubtedly casualties on the Palestinian side, almost every day.

JEFFREY BROWN: I gather there are continuing rumors of negotiations to release Corporal Gilad Shalit. That's the Israeli soldier kidnapped in June, the event that sort of began this whole round of violence. What can you tell us about that?

DOUG STRUCK: Of course, the parties, as is typical in these cases, are loathe to say anything publicly, but Germany has all but confirmed that it is doing some talking. Egypt is doing some talking. The intent is to try to arrange a prisoner swap.

Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. They desperately want their Israeli corporal back who was kidnapped June 25th. Other elements of such a deal might include a promise to stop violence on both sides and maybe even means to ease the economic situation in Gaza.

Obviously, it's a fairly complicated package. It hasn't come down yet, but clearly people are talking.

JEFFREY BROWN: And among those that Israel detained after that kidnapping were a number of Hamas legislators and cabinet members. Anything new on that?

DOUG STRUCK: They have detained about 40 cabinet members and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council who are Hamas members. Now, these were people who were elected in the January Palestinian elections.

Their argument, of course, is that this was a democratic election and that they shouldn't be arrested. Israel's argument is that Hamas is a group which continues to refuse the right of Israel to exist and has not renounced the violence and, therefore, these people are people that Israel wants to detain.

Humanitarian situation

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Doug, in your article in today's Post, you described a very grim humanitarian situation there. Tell us what you saw.

DOUG STRUCK: Yes, I've been going to the Gaza Strip off and on for about 15 years, and it is as grim, indeed, as I've ever seen it. There are 1.4 million Palestinians there, and they are really caught in this pincher, this siege that is both military and economic.

The military we've talked about a little; it was in response to the kidnapping of Corporal Shalit. The economic embargo was really triggered by the election of Hamas and the decision by the United States and others to cut off international aid.

Israel has increased this embargo by, in effect, sealing off the Gaza Strip. No one can go in or out. Goods cannot go out of the Gaza Strip since June 25th, which means that the hot houses that grow produce have no place to sell them to. The textile mills have shut down because they can't get their products out.

The economic embargo means that no direct aid comes to the Palestinian Authority, which is the largest employer in the Gaza Strip. So teachers, nurses, policemen, clerks, really 160,000 people are without paychecks for the last six months.

So basically Gazans have run out of money. They have no jobs. Their businesses are closing down, and they have no way to get out. It's an increasing level of desperation in a place that has long been fraught with misery.

JEFFREY BROWN: You quoted a U.N. relief official as saying Gaza is going down the tubes. Is any humanitarian aid or food -- is that becoming a problem?

DOUG STRUCK: No, the humanitarian aid and food is coming through. It's certainly not easy to get it through the obstacles, but Israel is allowing food in. The United Nations groups and World Food Program are feeding about one million of the 1.4 million Palestinians there.

So, as the relief workers there say, it's really not a situation where people are starving, but it is a situation where they feel imprisoned and they have no place to go. In addition, the Gaza Strip has long been a place that is disproportionately filled with youngsters. In fact, among the 200 Palestinians or more who have been killed in this military action are 44 children.

Those youngsters really have no outlet. They have no soccer fields; they have no clubs; they have no place to go. All they see is a culture of violence. And those who live in Gaza and have been there for a long time worry that this next generation is going to know nothing more except militancy.

Hamas and Fatah

JEFFREY BROWN: There's also continuing reports of tensions between members of Hamas and Fatah, including skirmishes in the streets. What can you tell us about that situation?

DOUG STRUCK: Well, of course, they downplay -- they don't want the public to know too much of the dirty linen that goes on between the factions, but there's no secret that there's no love lost between the two.

Those who support Fatah would argue that Hamas is neglecting its responsibilities by continuing to insist that it not -- by continuing to insist that Israel has no right to exist, and therefore allowing the economic embargo to continue.

Hamas says, "Look, we were a democratically elected government. We have every right to maintain our positions." There have been talks. There have been attempts to try to form some sort of a combined unity government in hopes that that might relieve the economic blockade, but so far they've been unable to do it, which I think is a measure of the disparity between the two.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Doug Struck of the Washington Post, thank you very much.

DOUG STRUCK: My pleasure.