Fine journalism as a paper hunts for Shalit

By Alex Brummer, September 19, 2008

The Sunday Times goes to Gaza to ‘find' Israel's kidnapped soldier

The kidnapping of 19-year-old Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on June 25, 2006 at the Israel-Gaza border was one of the seminal events in recent Middle East history, marking a new stage of the conflict between
Israel and Islamic-backed militias.

Despite a sustained campaign for his freedom, led by his father Noam (who is in Britain this weekend), Shalit is in danger of becoming Israel's abandoned hostage. While the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two soldiers captured by Hizbollah at the start of the Lebanon war, were returned as part of a prisoner exchange, Shalit remains incarcerated in Gaza.

In a riveting article in the Sunday Times, reporter Christine Toomey and photographer Heidi Levine crossed into Gaza in search of Shalit. Toomey reports that the uncertainty surrounding Shalit, who has now spent three years in captivity, has been damaging to the morale of the teenage conscripts in the IDF.

Toomey's journey into the back alleys of Gaza is an old-fashioned piece of reporting. It reinforces the liberal media view of Gaza as "a vast open prison". This is a minor irritation, given the broad thrust of the piece.

Since the capture and eventual release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston, foreign correspondents have been far more careful about travelling in Hamas-controlled Gaza, where Islamic militias are in control.

Toomey's effort to track down Shalit and learn more about his condition is reminiscent of the derring-do days of the old Daily Express, when it would dispatch reporters to the far corners of the earth in the search of missing figures ranging from Lord Lucan to Nazi war-criminals.

The Toomey report provides graphic insight into life in Hamas-controlled Gaza, where leaders live in fear of assassination from other factions. After failing to glean information on Shalit from the Hamas leadership, the reporter appears to learn a great deal more from Abu Khatab Dogmush, leader of a Gaza clan known for its criminality.

Khatab tells Toomey that Shalit is living in "paradise" - an unfortunate claim, given that is where Islamic suicide-bombers believe they will end up. He adds that every year Shalit is given a birthday party by his captors at which there "is a cake and candles, music and everything". He says Shalit is well-treated, a claim repeated ad infinitum. Reports that Shalit was injured during capture are airily dismissed.

Eventually the reporter meets up with representatives of the Popular Resistance Committees, which organised the kidnap. Terms are outlined for Shalit's release, which involve an exchange for 1,100 Palestinians in Israeli custody. After her journey, the reporter returns to see Shalit senior and mentions claims of an annual birthday party. Noam winces and suggests that time is against his son.

The Sunday Times article is one of the few in Britain's national press to have drawn attention to the young man's captivity.

The Los Angeles Times recently marked his 22nd birthday with an article which noted the efforts of family and friends to keep memory of his captivity alive in a nation where the news cycle moves very fast. A fleeting reference in The Guardian noted that French President Sarkozy used his visit to Syria earlier this month to impress on President Bashar al-Assad the case for release of Shalit, a dual Israeli-French citizen.

Whereas Alan Johnston's capture in Gaza captured the imagination of media across the world, Shalit's long imprisonment is an embarrassment to Israel and the Palestinians alike. Toomey's journey of discovery is a piece of original reporting which places Shalit back on the public agenda.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 10:49am, September 18 2008