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(photo credit: AP)
BBC reporter Alan Johnston's safe release after 114 days of incarceration still leaves a number of unanswered questions, especially since we have yet to learn many details on the events leading up to his liberation.
We are still unaware of the complete circumstances of his capture. Was he targeted simply due to the fact that he was a Westerner, with some government or organization therefore presumably prepared to pray handsomely for his return? Or was there a more "political" reason, stemming from his prominence as the representative of the largest news organization in the world?
Dozens of foreigners had been abducted before him in the Gaza Strip in the space of a few months. In all those cases, the prisoners' release was organized in a few days, usually in return for a quiet financial arrangement. Most of these kidnaps weren't even publicized, despite the fact that they were well known to most journalists covering Palestinian affairs. The fact that Johnston's ordeal went on for so long suggests that his captors had more complex motives.
The group that called itself the "Army of Islam" demanded the release of a list of Islamist terror suspects being held in Britain and was rumored to have al-Qaida ties. We all know now that this was just a cover for a tribal gang, the Dughmush clan, which didn't care a jot about its co-religionists in Britain and was mainly after concessions of a much more local kind.
The fact that Johnston was eventually released almost certainly proves that it had no al-Qaida connection; groups operating under Osama Bin Laden's aegis have by and large executed hostages from the US and Britain. What is much more interesting are the ties between Dughmush and Hamas.
Members of the gang were a central part of the team that captured Gilad Schalit a year ago, under Hamas direction. Various Dughmushes hold positions in Hamas-dominated departments of the Palestinian Authority and many of them are Hamas members. Ostensibly the clan fell out with the Hamas leadership a few months ago, and a number of the family members have been killed over the last few weeks in clashes with Hamas.
But there's no question that the gang has worked closely on and off with Hamas. According to one spokesman speaking in Gaza after Johnston's release, the Army of Islam will not be disbanded, but will once again operate in concert with Hamas.
All these details point to the conclusion that senior Hamas leaders must have been aware of Johnston's capture almost immediately after it took place and knew the most relevant details of the circumstances of his imprisonment.
Which leads us to the next question: Why was Johnston held for almost four months? Even before Hamas achieved complete control of Gaza three weeks ago in a bloodbath, the movement already was the dominant armed presence in the Strip. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called for Johnston's release a few days after the abduction, but it's hard to believe that if Hamas's leaders based in Damascus had a real interest in his freedom, they could not have set him free long ago.
Most observers, and Johnston himself, have described Hamas's bloody takeover as the main event that allowed his eventual release. Johnston said that in the first three weeks of his capture, his captors acted confidently, without any apparent worry that someone would attempt to release him. That confidence evidently dissipated after Fatah's men in Gaza were eliminated.
What was the real reason for the Dughmushes' cockiness? Perhaps, previously, their friends in the Hamas had given them no reason to worry? They were much too busy at that time throwing Fatah members from the 15th floor; a simultaneous fight with their old friends and allies, the Dughmushes, wasn't on the agenda.
What really changed when Hamas established absolute control in Gaza was that suddenly it was in a competition for international recognition with Mahmoud Abbas's new Ramallah government. According to sources involved in the effort to release Johnston, the British government refused various demands made for his freedom, including both payments and other concessions to Dughmush and open talks with Hamas.
The moment Hamas itself had a clear interest in his freedom, as a means of achieving international recognition and changing its image to that of a responsible administration ensuring law and order in Gaza, the price for Johnston changed. Now it was Hamas that was being asked to pay, in the form of assurances that the gang would be allowed to keep its arms and to continue its various criminal activities. Hamas at one stage was preparing to storm the Dughmush compound, but was stopped at the last moment by pleas that this could lead to Johnston's death, including one he made himself in the explosive-waistcoat video.
The fact that finally he was let go without a fight and that Hamas has promised the Dughmush operation would not be dismantled shows that, in the end, a combination of promises and threats did the trick.
As in the case of the British sailors and marines abducted by Iran three and half months ago, the lingering question is over what price, if any, was paid by the British government. No prisoners from its side were released and, while acknowledging Hamas's role in the release, both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that Britain wasn't about to depart from the general Western policy of not negotiating with Hamas until the movement recognized Israel and renounced violence. Brown even made a point of thanking Abbas for his efforts before mentioning those of Haniyeh. Any deviation from this position in the coming weeks will automatically be seen as part-payment.
It remains to be seen what if anything Hamas has gained from Johnston's release besides a temporary PR coup. But one fact should remain in Israelis' minds. In two cases of hostage-taking, quiet British diplomacy has eventually secured the freedom of British nationals. Israel is obviously in a very different position, but there are definitely lessons to be learned here.
In the three decades since the Entebbe operation, Israel's record in freeing hostages and prisoners has been dismal. Soldiers are still missing in action in Lebanon and Gaza, others have been killed in rescue attempts and those who did get home safely were released only after humiliating and exorbitant deals were reached following tortuous negotiations. Britain brought its people home, safe and sound. If it did pay a price, and that's not at all clear, it got a better bargain than successive Israeli governments have managed for our prisoners and MIAs.
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