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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 July 2007, 15:55 GMT 16:55 UK
Hamas seeks to gain from release
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent BBC News website

Alan Johnston with Hamas leadership
Hamas leaders pose with the BBC's Alan Johnston

There is no doubt that Hamas has scored a major propaganda victory with the release of the BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston.

The issue now is whether it can convert that victory into progress towards getting itself accepted as a recognised representative of the Palestinians internationally.

Currently, the outside world is concentrating its support on the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party which controls the West Bank.

It was no accident that Alan Johnston was taken to the home of the Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniya, who was sacked as Palestinian prime minister by Mr Abbas.

The message was clear. Hamas is in charge, is a responsible organisation... [that] has nothing to do with the al-Qaeda inspired kidnappers and can impose law and order

There, the freed reporter was given breakfast and told his story in the presence of the Hamas leadership who posed with him for photographs.

The message was clear. Hamas is in charge, is a responsible organisation that won the Palestinian elections last year, has nothing to do with the al-Qaeda inspired kidnappers and can impose law and order.

The implication was that affairs in Gaza have improved since Hamas seized control and that the world should now deal with it.

Ismail Haniya suggested that Britain had been rewarded in this matter because it had ignored the embargo on talks with Hamas by speaking to it directly, a hint that it is worth doing business with Hamas.

The British consul-general from Jerusalem did visit Gaza for that purpose.

Plea to Fatah

Mr Haniya also made a plea to Mr Abbas for reconciliation. "If there is a real desire... then we will be able to achieve numerous interests for the Palestinian people towards freedom, return, and independence," he said.

However, an Abbas aide, Yasser Abed Rabbo, claimed that Hamas and the kidnappers had coordinated the kidnapping and release. "I think this was staged by Hamas to make it appear as if it respects international law," he said.

There was a limited acknowledgement of Hamas' role in a statement by the new British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. He mentioned Ismail Haniya by name but he mentioned President Abbas first.

"I'd also like to recognise the priority that has been given to this issue by President Abbas and also by the leadership of Hamas, including Ismail Haniya," he said.

So the priority for Western governments is still the same. Mr Abbas comes first.

Quartet conditions

Hamas' hurdle is that the main international negotiating group known as the Quartet - the US, the UN, the EU and Russia - has laid down three conditions for accepting any party to the negotiating process (not that there is one at the moment).

These conditions were laid out in a statement from the Quartet on 30 January 2006 after Hamas won the Palestinian elections.

Alan Johnston soon after his release

"It is the view of the Quartet that all members of a future Palestinian government must be committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the Roadmap," the statement said.

Hamas has not fulfilled those conditions and in any case the situation has changed significantly since Hamas imposed its total control by force in Gaza.

The Palestinian territories are now divided between Hamas and Fatah. This has led to the Quartet making a choice and it has chosen Fatah.

Israel's position

Alan Johnston's release is not likely to change Israel's mind about Hamas.

A commentary on Israel radio stated: "Sources said that instead of becoming all excited over Alan Johnston's release, one should recall the kidnappings and chaos in the Gaza Strip, while continuing to demand that the PNA (Palestinian National Authority) uphold its promise and bring about the release of Gilad Shalit."

Gilad Shalit is an Israeli corporal who has been held in Gaza for more than a year.

As for the Arab world, the Saudi King Abdullah has urged the two sides to get back together. Jordan is backing Mr Abbas. Some sentiment lies with Hamas. Reuters reports that several key Saudi clerics last week urged Palestinians not to give up jihad against Israel.

"Maintain the way of jihad and preaching which has spread among the Muslim Palestinian people. Support it and beware of it easing up, and ward off the danger of those who are laying in wait," said a statement published on Islamist Web sites, signed by 16 leading figures in Saudi Arabia's religious establishment.


A look at the role of Hamas in Alan Johnston's release

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