By Joharah Baker
In a surprise turn of events on the morning of July 4, Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent who has been in captivity in the Gaza Strip for nearly four months, was set free. Johnston, who was abducted by masked and armed men on March 12, was being held by a group calling itself the Army of Islam, a vigilante, self-proclaimed radical Islamist group often compared to Al Qaeda.
Johnston has been the longest held civilian captive in the Strip since the “kidnapping trend” took root a few years ago. Several local and foreign journalists along with members of Palestinian political movements have been kidnapped by various groups but have always been released within days or even hours.
So, when the captors failed to release Johnston in the first few days, it became clear that this abduction would prove more challenge than the others. Still, mediation between the captors, members of the Dughmush family who are purportedly the leaders of this “Army”, always came up against a brick wall, with the captors demanding that Muslims in British jails be released in exchange for Johnston, namely Muslim cleric Abu Qatada.
Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian public strongly condemned the abduction and demanded the immediate release of Johnston. Palestinian journalists even angrily blamed the Palestinian Authority for not doing enough to secure Johnston’s safety or exert enough efforts to free him, picketing the Legislative Council with their mouths symbolically gagged and holding up banners calling for Johnston’s release.
Hamas also publicly condemned the kidnapping and is said to have been working for Johnston’s release for months. Until three weeks ago however, these efforts have been in vain. And then came the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip following a week of bloody confrontations between this movement and Fateh. For the captors, who ironically, like Hamas, claim to be devout Muslims, this represented a shift in the dynamics of powers governing the Strip.
For Hamas as well, this sudden rise to power in Gaza coupled with its further ostracism by the international community, meant Johnston’s release could provide an unprecedented opportunity for the movement to present itself to the world in a different, more humanitarian light.
By the looks of the initial pictures broadcast on the Arab and foreign satellite channels following Johnston’s release, this is definitely the goal Hamas was aiming for. Although the actual conditions of his release will most likely never be fully publicized, some details are clear cut. For one, a fatwa or religious edict, was issued yesterday, demanding Johnston’s release. Then, Hamas-backed executive forces surrounded the hideout where the captors were holding Johnston until a deal was reached.
Then came the jubilant pictures of Johnston, beaming and being led by Hamas operatives into a jeep and driven to the home of deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, where the journalist joined high ranking Hamas officials in what was most likely the best breakfast he had had in months. Johnston was filmed casually chatting with Mahmoud Zahhar, a senior Hamas leader known for his fiery stances and clashes with Fateh.
For the first time since the emergency government was dissolved and Hamas took control of Gaza, the movement’s officials were hosted on satellite channels, giving lengthy interviews about Johnston’s release. During a BBC interview, Hamas spokesperson Ghazi Hamad, eloquently speaking in nearly-fluent English attempted in his brief five-minute airtime, to rectify Hamas’ severely damaged image in the western world.
Hamad, who said Hamas had been in negotiations with the captors for the last three months, made it very clear that none of the “Army’s” demands had been met. He said Hamas felt very strongly about freeing Johnston, saying that such abductions were not in the interests of the Palestinians neither were they in line with Islamic teachings.
Hamad then made a direct plea to Europe and to the international community at large. “We are a movement aimed at liberating ourselves from occupation, not a terrorist organization,” he said. He also said the EU and its western allies should recognize that Hamas believes in coexistence and does not have a bone to pick either with Europe or with non-Muslims in general.
This of course, is in sharp contrast to the ideology espoused by Johnston’s abductors. The Army of Islam is said to be followers of the extremely strict and radical Salafist branch of Islam, which supposedly adheres to the literal wording of the Quran. The group previously proclaimed that Johnston’s abduction was part of the war between Muslims and non-Muslims and has mimicked the various Muslim radical groups in Iraq in terms of forcing Johnston to parrot their demands on videotape. In one of these broadcast tapes, Johnston was pictured with an explosives belt around his torso, warning that if anyone tried to free him by force, it would be detonated. Fortunately, Johnston was released relatively unharmed when everyone was aware that the situation could easily have taken a sharp and tragic turn.
Although it is highly unlikely that the international community – namely the West – will make a 180-degree turn regarding its stance towards Hamas, there has at least been an acknowledgement of the movement’s efforts. Hours after Johnston’s release, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband made a televised statement recognizing all those who worked towards Johnston’s freedom, including “ordinary Palestinians, President Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh.”
While Palestinians have expressed their relief over Johnston’s release, the problem is broader than this one incident. It is extremely disturbing that such groups even exist in our society. While it is true that almost every single Palestinian found Johnston’s abduction abhorrent and considers such groups as illegal and rogue, the fact still remains that there are some that subscribe to such extremist ideas.
But what does this really mean for Hamas? Perhaps the benefits will be more fruitful internally than those reaped in the international community. If Hamas, known for its Islamic ideological foundation, can delegitimize dangerous groups such as the Army of Islam by calling them “non-Islamic” this will most likely resonate with the average Palestinian who may fall into their trap in the name of religion. Without a popular base, vigilante groups such as this one, which have recently begun to take root in the already conservative Gaza Strip, will not have a lifeline to sustain themselves with. In this regard, Hamas has the opportunity to root out these movements, which have the potential to be extremely detrimental to the Palestinians, both politically and socially.
At the international level, it remains to be seen if Hamas’ role in securing Johnston’s freedom will even make a dent in the unbending Western perception of the Islamic group. While politics is known to make strange bedfellows, if the international community softens its stance towards Hamas and grants it recognition, this would the strangest union ever.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (www.Miftah.org; July 4, 2007)