BBC reporter Alan Johnston was released following Syrian pressure on Hamas, at the request of the British government. According to a report Thursday morning by the London daily Al Quds al Arabiyeh, Hamas will transfer weapons and ammunition to the Army of Islam terrorist group, which had held Johnston. In addition, Hamas officials Thursday morning said Johnston's release aimed to force Europe to reevaluate its position towards the group.
Johnston's parents 'overjoyed'
Johnston released from 4 month captivity
Meanwhile, security sources expressed guarded optimism Thursday that the release of Johnston could lead to the freeing of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, Army Radio reported.
"Hamas wishes to obtain international support, and the accolades it received yesterday following the BBC correspondent's release could prompt the organization to step up its negotiations with Israel," the source said.
However, another source with more expertise on negotiations to free Schalit, said Thursday morning that since Hamas took control of Gaza negotiations were at a standstill. The source added that Israel was yet to receive the list of prisoners that Hamas wishes freed in exchange for Schalit.
On Wednesday, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that Johnston's release by Hamas was intended to send a message to Israel that the Islamist movement was prepared to strike a deal regarding abducted IDF Cpl. Gilad Schalit, Wednesday.
"This move carries a message to the Zionists that Hamas is prepared to end the case of [captured IDF Cpl.] Gilad Schalit," he said. "If they have the will, we can reach a deal on a prisoner exchange."
An official in the Prime Minister's Office said that Israel welcomed Johnston's safe return.
While refusing to respond directly to Zuhri, he warned, "Hamas cannot masquerade as anything else but the terrorist organization whose members continue to hold our captive son, Gilad Schalit."
He added, that "Israel will not relent until he is brought home."
Abu Zuhri said Johnston's release came as a shock to the Palestinian Authority's Fatah leadership and its security forces.
Dismissing allegations by PA leaders that Hamas had been involved in the kidnapping of Johnston, Abu Zuhri said: "The release of the journalist came as a big shock to [PA Chairman Mahmoud] Abbas and his officials. It also proves that calm has begun returning to the Gaza Strip after the Fatah security forces and militias were dismantled and their leaders fled. They were responsible for the anarchy and lawlessness here."
A number of senior Israeli defense officials said they believed Hamas had paid a substantial ransom - possibly millions of dollars - to Johnston's captors in return for his release. The officials said that the fact that the captors released the Scottish journalist without a fight indicated that they had received something in return.
The defense officials said Johnston was not interrogated by the IDF or the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). They said he was debriefed by British officials and that the information he could provide would most likely not assist Israel in its efforts to retrieve Schalit.
Johnston, the officials said, was held by the powerful Dughmush clan in Gaza City, and Schalit was being held by a different group.
The Hamas spokesman accused the Fatah-controlled security forces of aiding Johnston's captors over the past four months, but did not elaborate.
He also said Johnston's release was intended to send a message to the international community that Hamas was a reliable partner and serious about imposing law and order.
"We hope that the international community will end its boycott of Hamas and realize that they made a mistake when they refused to accept the democratic choice of the Palestinians when they voted for us. Today we proved to the world that we respect the freedom of the media and that we won't allow anyone to harm a foreigner who visits us."
Haniyeh expressed hope that the release of Johnston would also bring an end to the Schalit case. Haniyeh spoke at a joint press conference with Johnston at his home in Gaza's Shati refugee camp shortly after his release.
"If the Israelis think reasonably and rationally, and take into account the humanitarian issue and the suffering of the Palestinian prisoners, we will be able to reach a deal," Haniyeh said.
He congratulated Johnston's family and his colleagues and said, "This is a happy moment for the Palestinian people." Haniyeh said negotiations for Johnston's release included talks between the Hamas leadership abroad and the British government.
Referring to the West Bank, he said: "I hope order, security, stability and the end of anarchy will also reach them."
Members of Hamas's armed wings, the Executive Force and Izaddin Kassam, had for the past three weeks surrounded the area where Johnston was being held by gang-leader Mumtaz Dughmush, a member of one of Gaza City's powerful clans.
Hamas officials said Dughmush had refused to release Johnston before receiving assurances that he and members of his clan would not be killed by Hamas.
On Tuesday night, Hamas gunmen were very close to raiding the homes of the Dughmush clan in Gaza City's Sabra neighborhood. The operation was called off at the last minute when Dughmush phoned senior Hamas officials and expressed readiness to release Johnston immediately.
Israeli officials said they were tipped off late Tuesday night by Palestinian sources in Gaza about Johnston's imminent release. This was further substantiated when British officials arrived at the Erez crossing to northern Gaza and asked to be allowed to enter the Strip.
Ahmed Bahr, a top Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, said the "era of kidnapping journalists and foreigners in Palestine was over" with the release of Johnston. He urged Britain and the rest of the international community to reconsider their policies toward Hamas.
He also dismissed as "nonsense" claims by some PA officials that Hamas had paid $2 million to Johnston's captors.
"The British reporter was freed thanks to mediation efforts by many Palestinians, including Muslim religious scholars and representatives of other factions," he said.
In Ramallah, Abbas welcomed the release of Johnston and called for dismantling all militias and gangs.
"United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also appeared to reference Schalit in a statement in which he welcomed Johnston's release and called for those "abducted and detained in similar circumstance" to be let go.
Ban acknowledged the work of all parties concerned in securing Johnston's freedom and said it was a "crucial reminder of the need to protect not only the freedom but also the security and safety of the media around the world."
EU officials also weighed in on Wednesday. Its president, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, said, "The European Union expresses its total rejection of these kinds of actions and reiterates its call and expectation that they will not happen again."
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana added, "I am very much looking forward to hearing the sound of his voice on the radio again."
The chairman of the European Parliamentary delegation for relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council, Kyriacos Triantaphyllides of Cyprus, said, "We now need to analyze the terms under which his surrender was made possible, in order to elaborate the possibility for confidence-building measures in the Gaza Strip in the near future."
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.