Hamas acts to show it's in charge
The Islamist group won the release Wednesday of a British reporter, solidifying its standing in troubled Gaza.
In an assertion of its new superiority over Gaza, Hamas secured the freedom Wednesday of British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Alan Johnston, whose nearly four months of captivity was the longest endured by any foreigner abducted during the recent unrest in the Palestinian territories.Skip to next paragraph
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Hamas's mix of negotiations and a threat of force to gain the reporter's release marks an epilogue to the Islamist group's swift takeover of Gaza from the secular Fatah Party last month.
The image of a tired but grateful Mr. Johnston seated alongside Hamas's senior leadership in Gaza served notice to Palestinians and the international community of the Islamist group's determination to reestablish internal stability in the coastal strip.
"It's the most unimaginable relief that it's over," said Johnston shortly after being freed. Hamas's leaders "made a huge effort to pressure the kidnappers." Since his March 12 abduction from the streets of Gaza City, Johnston had been held by a radical group that calls itself the "Army of Islam" and is backed Gaza's Dagmush clan – one of several families whose power has grown because of the vacuum created by the Hamas-Fatah rivalry. As long as the clan flouted calls by Hamas leaders to release Johnston and made threats to kill him, Hamas's ascension couldn't be considered complete.
"We won't let anyone kidnap or do anything against our interests. We want to maintain calm and the law in Gaza," said Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman, on Israel Radio. "I think that all of the families understand this message, and the situation in Gaza will be stable."
Thousands of Hamas gunmen were deployed late Tuesday in the Gaza City neighborhood where Johnston was being held, raising fears of a violent battle. Ultimately, the two sides used Islamic mediators to broker a deal, which ended the standoff with no casualties.
While the rescue is unlikely to end the international boycott imposed on Hamas for its refusal to recognize Israel, it solidifies the group's credentials as rulers with the ability to enforce their will – a striking contrast to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's longtime difficulty in controlling Gaza's armed groups. For Israelis, the freeing of Johnston raised hopes that Hamas would agree to swap a 20-year-old Israeli soldier held for more than a year in return for hundreds of prisoners.
"Hamas proved that they are in control of Gaza. This is a sign to the international community, and to the local community, that 'we can make peace and order,' " says Nashat Aqtash, a former consultant to Hamas's 2006 parliamentary campaign. "Alan Johnston was the only card for Hamas to show that they are capable, and when they make promises, they keep it."
Johnston was just weeks away from the conclusion a three-year stint as the BBC's Gaza City bureau chief when he was abducted. One of the last foreign journalists to remain in Gaza despite the increased targeting of foreigners, Johnston's plight drew sympathy worldwide and among Palestinians.
Johnston said that his one lucky break during his ordeal was getting a radio and being able to listen to the BBC. "I began to realize the extraordinary extent of support that there was," Johnston said.