Hope for Gaza Hostages?

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Abid Katib / Getty

BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston appears wearing a body belt, which he said contained explosives, in this image taken from a short video, entitled "Alan's Appeal", released by Jaish al-Islam ('Islamic Army' or 'Army Of Islam') on June 25, 2007.

In Gaza, proof of life came within the last 48 hours for two long-sought captives: the BBC journalist Alan Johnston, captured over 100 days ago, and Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was grabbed exactly one year ago by militants who had tunneled under the security wall around the Gaza Strip.

In the case of the kidnapped BBC journalist, it is not a question of where he is being hidden or who his kidnappers are: Everyone in Gaza, and that includes the new rulers Hamas, suspects that Johnston was captured by a notorious arms smuggler and gangster named Mumtaz Dagmush.

The dilemma is how to spring Johnston without killing him.

A video of the journalist, released on Sunday by his captors, shows him wearing what is supposedly an explosive vest. In the video, Johnston warns: "The situation now is very serious. As you can see I have been dressed in what is an explosive belt, which the kidnappers say will be detonated if there was any attempt to storm this area," he says.

Hamas commanders despise the Dagmush clan. What stopped them from acting against Dagmush was that the clan were being shielded by Hamas' rivals, the Fatah militia loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas. But now that Hamas has chased off Fatah from Gaza, the Dagmush are vulnerable. They are also loathed by Gaza's other powerful clans for their thuggish behavior and kidnappings — the Dagmush's "Army of Islam' is also said to have joined in the capture of Shalit, but then to have sold him on to two other militant groups. Hamas fighters are supposedly in position on the rooftops near the Dagmush's sprawling compound in Gaza City, ready for the attack signal. One Hamas commander was quoted as saying that his Islamic militants could finish off the clan "within 15 minutes."

But Hamas wants to avoid Johnston's being killed while they're trying to rescue him, especially now that he may be strapped with explosives. For the Islamist militants who seized control of Gaza two weeks ago, freeing Johnston is an imperative: His release would show the international community that Hamas is not only acting responsibly, but are also in control of Gaza, which has for months been in the grip of anarchy. It is also seen as a test of Hamas' determination to crack down on the powerful clans whose many feuds have added to Gaza's chaos.

But the Dagmush fear for their lives. Gaza sources close to the clan say its members are afraid that once they release Johnston, they may be killed by Hamas, and holding him could be their only insurance policy.

In the case of the Israeli soldier Shalit, however, it is Hamas' own military wing that holds the captive. It released an audio recording on its website today of Shalit, in which a voice identified as belonging to the 20-year-old soldier says in Hebrew: "I've been in prison one year. My situation is deteriorating. I need an extended period in hospital." The voice adds: "I am sorry that the Israeli government has not shown more interest. It should meet the demands of my kidnappers so I can be released." Shalit's only previous communication had been a handwritten letter to his parents.

Shalit's captors want the Israeli government to exchange hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for the Israeli soldier. On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would release 250 prisoners from the Fatah group — but none from Hamas.