Why Hamas Freed a BBC Reporter

  • Share
  • Read Later
Abid Katib / Getty

BBC correspondent Alan Johnston was released Wednesday, July 4, 2007.

BBC Correspondent Alan Johnston was released on Wednesday after 114 days in captivity because the Hamas authorities in Gaza made his kidnappers an offer they couldn't refuse: either they freed the Briton or they would be hunted down and killed, a senior Hamas militant told TIME. To Johnston's captors, the Army of Islam, an offshoot of a powerful criminal clan in Gaza known as the Dogmush, there was no doubting Hamas' resolve. In the 48 hours prior to the journalist's release, Hamas gunmen took up positions on rooftops around the Dogmush compound in Gaza City, cut off water and electricity, and arrested several clan members, including a leader of the Army of Islam. The first sign that the kidnappers were cracking under the pressure came on Tuesday with the release of nine pro-Hamas students that the Army of Islam had grabbed earlier.

Earlier, Hamas officials said they could have raided the Dogmush compound and freed the captive journalist in "15 minutes," but that they were afraid that Johnston might have been harmed. (Johnston was moved to four different hideouts during his kidnapping but always kept in a windowless room.) Soon after these remarks were made public, a video of Johnston was released of him wearing an explosive belt and saying his captors would blow him up if Hamas tried to rescue him. Questioned about the video after his release, Johnston said: "If Hamas had stormed the hideout, there was a 50-50 chance I would've been used as a human shield."

Hamas' efforts to free the journalist weren't necessarily altruistic. Democratically elected to power in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza in January 2006, Hamas is locked in a fierce struggle with the Fatah movement loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is backed by the West. This rivalry culminated in Hamas ousting Fatah's armed forces from Gaza after six days of gun battles last month. Abbas retaliated by firing Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh and his cabinet, but Haniyeh has refused to step down. The Islamic militants of Hamas are anxious to show Palestinians in Gaza — and the rest of the world — that they can carry out their vow to impose order in Gaza. The photo op of a smiling BBC man is a huge publicity coup, allowing Hamas to say, with some legitimacy, that they are bringing back stability to Gaza.

Johnston says the only time he was mistreated was shortly before his release, when his captors apparently could not contain their angry frustration over Hamas' terms. He described how they "smashed me in the face" before they shoved him in the vehicle that delivered him to freedom before dawn on Wednesday. As Johnston later remarked, "If it wasn't for Hamas' pressure, I'd be in that room a lot longer." His surly captors drove Johnston to Haniyeh's modest residence. Fed only on cheese, potatoes and bread during his months of solitary confinement, Johnston was obviously grateful for the huge breakfast laid out for him by Haniyeh, and the gaunt Scot was shown on TV wolfing down food as he answered questions about his abduction. He described his kidnappers as "dangerous and unpredictable."

A senior Hamas militant told TIME that under the terms of Johnston's handover, the Army of Islam would be allowed to keep its weapons "for resistance against Israel" but vowed that the group would "no longer kidnap journalists and would obey the Hamas government."

The Army of Islam, Johnston said, was "a small jihadi group that wasn't so interested in the Israeli-Palestinian issue as much as getting a knife into Britain." The group, numbering several hundred, claim to be inspired by al-Qaeda's anti-Western agenda, but Hamas leaders refer to them as kidnappers and guns-for-hire patronized by Fatah security forces loyal to Palestinian President Abbas. It was only after Hamas defeated Fatah militia in Gaza last month, said Johnston, that his abductors became edgy and nervous.

Securing the release of Johnston is a timely boon for Hamas' leaders who, despite their election victory, are boycotted by the West for refusing to renounce violence against Israel. Britain, which along with the U.S. has steadfastly refused to deal with Hamas, found itself negotiating directly with Haniyeh. Sacked by Abbas after the Gaza clashes, Haniyeh continues to run a Hamas phantom government in Gaza. In contrast to Abbas, whose own authority in the West Bank is shaky, Hamas can now rightly say that it is fully in control of Gaza. Freeing Johnston will help Hamas achieve a measure of international respectability, and, according to Palestinian analysts, the move may pave the way toward the release of another Gaza hostage, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped a year ago by several militants, including members of the Army of Islam. Hamas claims it is also trying to persuade smaller militant outfits in Gaza to cease firing rockets into Israel.

As for Johnston, after his breakfast with Hamas officials he was rushed by British diplomats to Jerusalem. He still seemed stunned by his long-awaited freedom: "It's hard to believe I'm not going to wake up in that room again."

With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Ramallah