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.

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.

His kidnappers, headed by a man known as Abu Khaled, were "often rude and unpleasant," he said. They "did threaten my life a number of times in various ways," Johnston said.

Johnston described his captors as a small "jihadi" group focused less on the Palestinian conflict with Israel than on "getting a knife into Britain in some way," he said. In exchange for Johnston, the Army of Islam had originally demanded that Britain free a radical Islamic cleric with ties to Al Qaeda.

Although foreigners have been kidnapped before in Gaza, they have been held for relatively brief periods and the abductors' demands usually focused on money and jobs. By contrast, the demands of "The Army of Islam" to release Muslim hostages in Britain and a videotaped message of Johnston in an explosive-laden belt were chilling suggestions of the influence of Al Qaeda.

But with Gaza caught in a power struggle between Hamas and Fatah, Palestinian security forces avoided moving against the influential clan – a family with militias of its own and a history of alliances with both political parties.

Since their violent takeover of Gaza from security forces loyal to President Abbas's Fatah Party, the Islamic militants have tried to consolidate their grip over Gaza by rounding up weapons held by the myriad armed groups that operate in Gaza. Residents have said that Hamas has eliminated random bursts of gunfire and restored a sense of safety.

The Dagmush clan was able to resist Hamas's show of force because it held Johnston hostage. But a tit-for-tat series of kidnappings between Hamas and the clan signaled that the standoff was escalating toward a conclusion. "We were expecting a big battle and a lot of blood. I was expecting to wake up and to find 20 or 30 people to be killed,'' said Hamada Abu Qamar, a Gaza resident who worked with Johnston at the BBC bureau. "Thank God. This is an unbelievable movement for [Alan] and everyone in Gaza."

Though Hamas ultimately resorted to the mediation of a Muslim cleric who issued a religious fatwa to pave the way for the release, the siege of the Hamas gunmen around Johnston's location is believed to have pressured the family into striking a deal.

Analysts said that the Dagmush family had previously been helped by groups within the Fatah-run Palestinian security services. Hamas's rout of Fatah three weeks ago left the clan isolated.

"The Dagmush family was playing on the divisions between Hamas and Fatah. Now Hamas is the only player around," says Omar Shaban, a former economic consultant to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. "This is a message to other families, that nobody in Gaza can challenge them."

While Abbas welcomed Johnston's release, a spokesman for the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank accused Hamas of protecting Johnston's captors for months. The same Gaza clan is believed to have helped in the kidnapping of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit more than a year ago, in cooperation of Hamas. Haniyeh said Hamas was interested in ending Mr. Shalit's captivity through an "honorable" prisoner-exchange deal.

• Associated Press material was used.

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