Analysis: Hamas hopes for legitimacy after Johnston's release

Hamas and Fatah are now in the midst of a battle to win the hearts and minds of the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank.

haniyeh 298.88 (photo credit: )
haniyeh 298.88
(photo credit: )
Ever since Hamas took full control of the Gaza Strip three weeks ago, it has been seeking to prove that the world can do business with it. To this end, Hamas leaders kept stressing that the main motivation behind June's coup against Fatah was to end the lawlessness and anarchy in Gaza. However, Hamas was well aware that it was not enough to direct traffic and to crack down on drug dealers and armed gangsters. That's why Hamas wanted something "big" that would impress the global community and boost its credibility. A day after Hamas assumed control of the Strip, its leaders sent a message to the Dughmush clan demanding the release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston. Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud Zahar and Said Siam knew that a picture with the freed British reporter would improve their image in the West and send a message that Hamas can deliver. They also knew that his release would serve to undermine what's left of Fatah's credibility. Before fleeing the Gaza Strip, Fatah leaders tried to negotiate a settlement with the Dughmush clan for the release of Johnston, but to no avail. Moreover, Fatah's multiple security services and militias, including Preventive Security, Military Intelligence and General Intelligence, failed to act against the kidnappers, whose identity was known to many. Wednesday's release of Johnston may not help Hamas in the short-term, because there is no chance that the international community will rush to embrace Haniyeh and friends. But Hamas is hoping that this is just the first step toward winning international recognition. As one Hamas official put it: "Now the world knows who's in charge of the Gaza Strip." Haniyeh hinted early Wednesday that Hamas was eager to also end the case of abducted IDF Cpl. Gilad Schalit, who has been held in Gaza since June 2006. Haniyeh's hope is that the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Schalit will further boost Hamas's popularity and credibility. Yet Hamas's messages are directed not only to the international community, but toward the rival Fatah faction and the Palestinians in the West Bank as well. The release of Johnston is undoubtedly a severe blow to the credibility of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, who have yet to explain why they had failed where Hamas succeeded. Disturbed by the fact that Hamas stole the show, Fatah leaders were quick to announce that the whole affair was a ploy. Some claimed that Hamas was one of the parties responsible for the kidnapping of Schalit, while others said Hamas had paid the captors millions of dollars. The release of the reporter is also intended to send a message to the Palestinians in the West Bank that contrary to what Fatah leaders are telling them, Hamas is capable of imposing law and order. The Gaza Strip has been relatively quiet since the Hamas takeover; drivers are even afraid to go through a red light. Many powerful clans have handed over their weapons to Hamas and Palestinian journalists say they no longer see armed gangs on the streets. The notorious Dughmush clan, whose members are behind the shadowy Army of Islam gang, was the last bastion to succumb to Hamas. By contrast, scenes of lawlessness and anarchy are still part of daily life in the West Bank. Abbas's decision to outlaw armed militias has fallen on deaf ears as many Fatah gunmen continue to patrol the streets and to intimidate the public. Hamas leaders insist that Johnston's captors were linked to Fatah leaders who tried, until the last minute, to foil the deal so as to avoid a situation where Hamas would take credit for his release. Many Fatah leaders in the West Bank were visibly embarrassed on Wednesday as Hamas leaders appeared on numerous TV stations to declare that the era of kidnappings and anarchy in the Gaza Strip was over. Hamas and Fatah are now in the midst of a battle to win the hearts and minds of the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank. There is no doubt that the release of Johnston has bolstered Hamas's standing at the expense of Fatah. True, Hamas does not have an armed presence in the West Bank, but the Islamic movement continues to enjoy popular support, especially among Palestinians who are dreaming of an end to the state of anarchy. On Wednesday, Abbas paid salaries to thousands of civil servants as part of a US- and EU-backed effort to boost Fatah's status. While many of the employees seemed to welcome the payments, the corruption-riddled Fatah still has a long way to go before it regains the confidence of the majority of Palestinians. And Alan Johnston's release has made that journey longer still.