setback for johnston

Posted on June 17, 2007


In what is perhaps a setback for the release of kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston, his kidnappers have gone to the media, not with news of his freedom, but with threats to kill him if their demands were not met.

Gaza-based extremist group, the Army of Islam, which had said it has held Johnston since March, denied the Hamas’ line last Friday that Johnston’s release was imminent.

Hopes had earlier been raised that Johnston might see freedom soon after Hamas took control of Gaza late last week after a week of bloody fighting with its rival Palestinian faction, Fatah.

“Freeing this detainee has not been part of any deal with any faction or organisation. What appears on television screens and through the media here and there are untrue,” an Army of Islam spokesman said on al-Jazeera television channel. “If they do not meet our demands there will be no release for that detainee and if things become more difficult … then we would seek God’s satisfaction by slaughtering this journalist.”

The Army of Islam wants the release of Islamist prisoners, in particular Palestinian-born cleric Abu Qatada, who is detained in the UK.

Hamas has been anxious to secure Johnston’s release as it tries to show the world that it is battling the lawlessness in Gaza which its says is due to the lack of good governance by Fatah. It was also a sign to the international community that Hamas had no intention of threatening or holding foreign journalists.

In many ways, this would be a test for Hamas. It is anxious to prove that it has control over Gaza and has the ability to bring a semblance of stability there, even as most predict its failure, due to Gaza’s isolation and its dwindling supplies of electricity and food. International governments have reacted to Hamas’ victory there by bolstering their support of its rival, the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas. The US has pledged to stop its embargo against the Palestinian Authorities, while Israel had said it could work with a Palestinian government that does not have Hamas as a part of it.

Treated as a pariah state by the international community, Gaza will face much hardship in the coming weeks. It would be to Hamas’ advanatage to score a public relations victory by securing Johnston’s release.