- The Washington Times
Thursday, July 5, 2007

TEL AVIV — The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip promised a new era of calm and respect for the law yesterday, after the release of kidnapped British reporter Alan Johnston.

“We won”t let anyone kidnap or do anything against our interests. We want to maintain calm and the law in Gaza. I think that all of the families understand this message,” said Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman.

Though it has been weeks since Hamas vanquished forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas officials and some analysts said yesterday that the release of Mr. Johnston signaled that the Islamist group had consolidated its control of the coastal strip.

The British Broadcasting Corp. journalist held hostage in the Gaza Strip was freed early yesterday after a deal between the ruling Hamas Islamists and the al Qaeda-inspired clan group that kidnapped him in March.

“It is just the most fantastic thing to be free. It was an appalling experience,” he told the British public broadcaster from the home of local Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh after his 114-day ordeal at the hands of the shadowy Army of Islam.

The nearly four-month captivity of the BBC’s Gaza correspondent by a militia backed by a powerful family had been an embarrassment to the Hamas leadership.

“We were always in contact with the kidnappers, and we negotiated with them, but two weeks ago, we reached the conclusion that we needed to use other methods,” Mr. Hamad told Israeli Radio yesterday.

Mr. Johnston had been held by a radical group, which calls itself the Army of Islam and is backed by Gaza”s Dagmush clan — one of several Gazan families whose power has grown because of the vacuum created by the rivalry between Hamas and Mr. Abbas” secular Fatah party.

The Dagmush clan was the last pocket of resistance that flouted the new Hamas regime, threatening to kill the reporter if Hamas used force to free him.

Although the reporter”s release is unlikely to end the international boycott imposed on Hamas for its refusal to recognize Israel, it solidifies the group”s credentials as rulers with the ability to enforce its will.

In contrast, Mr. Abbas and his Fatah loyalists had been unable to impose law and order in Gaza, prompting a six-day battle last month in which Hamas gunmen expelled Fatah gunmen to the West Bank.

“Hamas proved that they are in control of Gaza. This is a sign to the international community and to the local community that ‘we can make peace and order,” ” said Nashat Aqtash, a consultant to Hamas in its successful 2006 campaign to win control of the Palestinian parliament.

“Alan Johnston was the only card for Hamas to show that they are capable and when they make promises, they keep them,” he said.

For Israelis, the freeing of Mr. Johnston raised hopes that Hamas would agree to swap a 20-year-old Israeli soldier held for more than a year in return for hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

Israel”s government yesterday congratulated Mr. Johnston while pressing Hamas to return to negotiations over a prisoner swap.

Though Hamas ultimately resorted to the mediation of a Muslim cleric who issued a religious “fatwa” to pave the way for the release, the siege of the Hamas gunmen around Mr. Johnston”s location is thought to have pressured the family into striking a deal.

The Dagmush clan was able to resist Hamas” show of force because it held Mr. Johnston hostage and threatened to blow him up if authorities attempted to free him.

A tit-for-tat series of kidnappings between Hamas and the clan helped end the standoff.

“We were expecting a big battle and a lot of blood. I was expecting to wake up and to find 20 or 30 people to be killed,” said Hamada Abu Qamar, a Gaza resident who worked with Mr. Johnston at the BBC bureau.

“Thank God. This is an unbelievable movement for [Mr. Johnston] and everyone in Gaza,” he said.

Some analysts said that the Dagmush family had once been aided by groups within Fatah-run Palestinian security services. Therefore, Hamas” rout of Fatah three weeks ago left the clan isolated.

“The Dagmush family was playing on the divisions between Hamas and Fatah. Now Hamas is the only player around. They realized that Hamas now controls everything,” said Omar Shaban, a former economic consultant to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. “This is a message to other families, that nobody in Gaza can challenge them.”

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