By Mohammad Al-Sawwaf
GAZA CITY — Palestinian mediators are planning to propose to Hamas trading Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit with abducted BBC journalist Alan Johnston, IslamOnline.net has learnt.
"They want Hamas to deliver Shalit to the Army of Islam which would then negotiate with Israel swapping him for Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails," well-placed sources told IOl Wednesday, June 27.
"In return the Army of Islam would hand over Johnston to Hamas which can turn him safely to Britain."
The BBC Gaza correspondent, who spent his 100th day in captivity last week, is being held by militants from the powerful Dagmoush clan, which is centered on northern Gaza and has a long-running blood feud with Hamas.
Johnston, an experienced reporter, was the only Western journalist permanently based in the increasingly lawless territory when he was seized on March 12.
His plight has sparked rallies and messages of support from all over the world and an online petition calling for his release has been signed by more than 170,000 people.
Shalit was taken prisoner by three Palestinian resistance groups in a daring operations that killed two other soldiers.
The groups want to trade him for some of the nearly 11,000 Palestinian detainees, including women and minors, in Israeli jails.
The mediators believe such a swap would serve both Hamas and the self-styled Army of Islam.
"They think this would project Hamas as an authority that controls the situation in the Gaza Strip," said the sources.
"This would also help improve Hamas’s tense relations with the West, particularly Europe."
Hamas raised hopes after its capture of the Gaza Strip on June 15 that Johnston might be released quickly.
Sacked Prime Minister Ismail Haniya has this week demanded an end to Johnston’s captivity, warning his government and Hamas would not tolerate it much longer.
"If they (abductors) think this is Islamic it is not. If they think they are serving the Palestinian cause, they are not," said an angry Haniya.
As for the Army of Islam, the mediators believe, the Johnston-Shalit swap would be a "dignified" way-out from an embarrassing situation.
The abduction of civilians is prohibited in Islam and detested by Palestinians because it harms rather than helps their cause.
"Giving the Army of Islam a chance to negotiate with Israel on the release of Palestinian detainees would improve its public image after the Johnston miscalculation."
Hamas scoffed at the idea of trading Shalit for Johnston.
"There is no link between capturing an Israeli occupation soldier in a legitimate resistance operation and abducting an innocent civilian in violation of Islam," Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, told IOL.
"Capturing Shalit was part of a national project aimed at freeing Palestinian detainees from Israeli jails while kidnapping Johnston was simply a criminal act."
He insisted Hamas can never "dishonor" Palestinian detainees by allowing their release in return for an innocent civilian.
"Johnston’s abduction has brought shame on the noble Palestinian people and we can never be part of such a crime."
Palestinian sources said Hamas was working tirelessly with the powerful Dagmoush clan to free the British reporter.
"The clan has given up on its earlier demand for the release of Palestinian Abu Qatada, once labeled Al-Qaeda’s spiritual leader in Europe, who is being held in Britain," they told IOL.
The sources said the clan fears that once releasing Johnston Hamas would crack down hard on its members, especially that they fought with Fatah against Hamas in the latest bout of infighting.
"We have sent the Dagmoush clan and the leader of the Army of Islam – through mediators – a written guarantee that we would not harm them after freeing Johnston," Salah el-Bardaweel, the spokesman of Hamas’s parliamentary bloc, told IOL.
Abu Obieda, the commander of Izzidine Qassam Brigades, the elite and secretive military arm of Hamas, said freeing Johnston was one of his top priorities.
"I can have Alan Johnston out in two hours, if my men go in and take him by force," he said in a unique interview with The Observeron Sunday, June 24.
"But several times, the BBC has called me and asked that I not attack and let the talks continue. So we will negotiate because we want no harm to come to this man."
(IslamOnline.net, June 27, 2007)