Audio Transcript:

In 2007, he was kidnapped and held by militants in Gaza for 117 days. Johnston just returned to the region for the first time since his release. He says some things have changed. On today's show, we get a Middle East update from correspondent Alan Johnston.

MARCO WERMAN: We'd like to take a minute to remind you of a news story from 2007.

FEMALE SPEAKER: The BBC is still trying to locate our correspondent Alan Johnston, who has disappeared in Gaza. He was last seen yesterday afternoon leaving his office in Gaza City to drive to his home nearby.

ALAN JOHNSTON: My captors have treated me very well. They've fed me well. There's been no violence towards me at all, and I'm in good health.

MALE SPEAKER: Today, Alan begins his fifth week incarcerated, twice as long as any other western hostage held in Gaza.

MALE SPEAKER: Good evening, Alan Johnston, the BBC Journalist kidnapped in Gaza is enjoying freedom after 114 days in captivity.

JOHNSTON: There just are hardly words to say how relieved I am that this thing has ended that I am free again. It is most difficult to describe how good this moment feels.

WERMAN: That was 2007. And the story was the kidnapping of our BBC colleague, Gaza correspondent, Alan Johnston. Just weeks from the end his three-year stint in Gaza, Johnston was abducted by jihadi militants. He was held for nearly four months. Johnston has just been back to the West Bank on his first Middle East assignment since he was freed. He went to the West Bank City of Nablus for a BBC documentary series Crossing Continents. It was his first visit to Nablus in 6 years.

JOHNSTON: Hi, how are you?

FEMALE SPEAKER: It's been a long time.

JOHNSTON: Six years. I've got older it's true. Six years. Ahmed [PH], how are you?

MALE SPEAKER: Fine.

WERMAN: And Alan Johnston, that clip we just heard was you visiting the family you had stayed with six years ago. What was it like for you to go back?

JOHNSTON: It was great in many ways. Seeing people I'd known from back then and so on, but also bearing in mind, what happened at the end of my time in Gaza, the kidnapping and so on, of course, inevitably, there were sites and sounds, especially that did bring back memories, of course, of the kidnapping and so on. There were sounds in the streets, in the alleyways, the refugee camp, market, store, people crying out, and kids laughing and shrieking, and the call to prayer from Mosques, those are all the kind of sounds that used to drift into my cell during my period in captivity in Gaza, and of course, that brought back some memories. But overall, it was really good to go back for sure.

WERMAN: And you haven't aged too much.

JOHNSTON: I think I feel I sometimes have. I did feel like I got a little older in that room, and maybe a little bit more cautious it's true about life and the kind of risks that I take these days.

WERMAN: When you were in Nablus six years ago, the second Palestinian Intifada or uprising was raging in the West Bank. How is life there now for residents?

JOHNSTON: Well, six years ago, it was really a city pretty much at war with Israel. The Israeli army would come in day-after-day hunting for Palestinian militants. Palestinians are being killed every other day. There were raids, arrests and so on. At the same time, Palestinian militants were sending suicide bombers into the cities of Israel and taking a terrible toll in places like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and so on. But that time really has past. I found quite a difference in Nablus six years on this last visit.

WERMAN: And the security situation has changed, as you found in your conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Avi Shalev of the Israeli military right?

JOHNSTON: That's right. I went to the Beth El Headquarters of the Israeli military in the West Bank, and Colonel Shalev was upbeat about the situation.

COLONEL AVI SHALEV: We embarked on a new policy, which was to allow the Palestinian authority to take back responsibility in its own area, and this situation where the PA actually is taking responsibility, and has established its own security is a very positive situation, and it has allowed the IDF and Israel to open up the West Bank, and return it to a very healthy process, which is now taking place.

WERMAN: Alan, that's the Israeli point of view. We should also say that there's some optimism on the Palestinian side. You met a man, who asked to be called Abu Achmed. He was a former member of the militant group the al-Aqsa Matryrs brigade. Tell us about what he does now.

JOHNSTON: He was a man who was very much in the center of some of the worst periods of violence in Nablus. He was a Palestinian militant, but he is one of those Palestinian militants, who has decided to put down the gun, and has taken advantage of a complicated amnesty arrangement worked out with the Palestinian government, Palestinian authority and the Israeli authorities, and he has joined the regular Palestinian security forces. It was a man clearly weary of a life on the run, and he is looking simply to continue living for his family. He said he lost both his brothers in the fighting. He was a man who had enough, but I have to say I asked him if there was no progress towards peace settlements, something that might deliver the Palestinians, the state that they've wanted for so long. I said is there no progress? He said there'll be a return to violence, return to another intifada or uprising. He said he would have no part in it. He was through with that life. He said, but I have to say that around him in the refugee camp, you always see that rising generation yet to go through the kind of violence that Abu Achmed had seen, and they're perhaps as angry as the earlier generations about the ongoing occupation.

WERMAN: Is there then a lot to be optimistic about?

JOHNSTON: From the Palestinian point of view, there was a lot of considerable hope, I think, when they saw President Obama elected. And actually, he talked very firmly initially about the need for the Israelis to stop settlement building, but he did rather back away from that ?

WERMAN: Yeah, I was wondering if you think the Palestinians have kind of backed off their expectation of Mr. Obama.

JOHNSTON: Well, sure, you know, he often came up in conversation in Nablus, and there was deep disappointment that he hadn't stuck to that original position on the settlements. And settlements is a huge issue, especially for people in the City of Nablus. Whenever you look up in the streets of Nablus somewhere on the hilltops, you can make out an Israeli settlement. The underlying issues aren't being addressed at this stage, and as long as they're not, as there's so much that these two sides don't agree on, there's always a potential that you could see a drift back to violence eventually.

WERMAN: Well, listeners can hear the full documentary of Alan's time in Nablus on our Website at theworld.org. Alan Johnston, nice to speak with you, thanks for the perspective.

JOHNSTON: Thanks.