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BBC Reporter Freed as Hamas Consolidates Control in Gaza

July 4, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

JULIAN MANYON, ITV News Correspondent: This was the first sight of Alan Johnston free. Surrounded by the armed men of Hamas, he looked tired, even a little stunned. He’d been handed over by his kidnappers only half an hour before. But amid the chaos, there was no mistaking Alan’s relief and joy.

Soon afterwards, Alan found himself having breakfast with the leaders of Hamas, men who had been determined to free him to try to improve their Islamic movement’s image. Then, Alan began to describe the nightmare that he had just lived through.

ALAN JOHNSTON, BBC Reporter: I dreamt many times that — literally dreamt of being free again, and always woke up in that room. And it’s almost hard to believe that I’m not going to wake up in a minute in that room again.

JULIAN MANYON: British diplomats drove him to the border with Israel, and it was there that he spoke to me.

ALAN JOHNSTON: Hi, Julian, how are you?

JULIAN MANYON: Well, how are you is more to the point? How do you actually feel to be free? Has it sunk in?

ALAN JOHNSTON: You know, it is the most fantastic thing, isn’t it, to come to the end of that. It was the most terrible thing I’ve been through in my life. You can imagine, 16 weeks in solitary confinement, difficult, unpredictable people who did talk occasionally about killing me.

JULIAN MANYON: What was actually the worst moment?

ALAN JOHNSTON: The leader of the gang had said that I wouldn’t be killed or tortured. He was speaking with his face concealed in a face mask, and I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. And a couple of hours later, they woke me up, and they put a hood over my head and handcuffed me, and took me out into the night. And, of course, you wonder where that’s going to end, and I really — I was taken into a room then, a very bare room then. But through the mask that they put on me, I could see in the corner a large stick. And I did wonder if I was going to get a beating at that point.

Johnston describes imprisonment

JULIAN MANYON: I asked Alan about the day the kidnappers put him in an explosive vest.

Did you believe that that threat at that moment was real?

ALAN JOHNSTON: You know, I couldn't be sure. If Hamas were to storm the hideout, I didn't know how they were going to react. I wondered if they might use me as some kind of human shield. I thought there was a chance that they really might kill me, that they wouldn't let Hamas get what they'd come for. It was a kind of 50-50 thing that you had to brace yourself for the worst.

JULIAN MANYON: In fact, Alan told me, the kidnappers were only violent in the last dramatic and fearful moments before they set him free.

ALAN JOHNSTON: There was no violence until the very last moment of the ride into Gaza City last night when they started to knock me about a bitâ?¦

JULIAN MANYON: They beat you?

ALAN JOHNSTON: I wouldn't make too much of it. I was hit about the head and slammed into the side of the car. And so they were in a highly charged, excitable mood, but I think maybe angry that I was getting away. These were the guards, maybe, and they were certainly frightened about having to make the drive through several Hamas checkpoints. And so they were -- it was unpleasant, to be honest. I was smashed in the face.

JULIAN MANYON: Alan is now going to drive into Israel, finally a free man. Bearing in mind what he's been through, he seems in astonishingly good condition.

Explaining Hamas' power

Steven Erlanger
The New York Times
Hamas knew who was holding Alan Johnston, and they were very eager to show the world that they could put some order into the territory that, really, they'd conquered. And they put a lot of pressure on this Dughmush clan and family.

GWEN IFILL: Now some analysis of what was behind Johnston's release. We get that from Steven Erlanger, Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times. Margaret Warner spoke with him earlier this evening.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Erlanger, welcome. Explain how Hamas was able to pull off the freeing of Alan Johnston when Fatah, all the months that they controlled security in Gaza, couldn't.

STEVEN ERLANGER, New York Times: Well, Hamas knew who was holding Alan Johnston, and they were very eager to show the world that they could put some order into the territory that, really, they'd conquered. And they put a lot of pressure on this Dughmush clan and family.

And the way they did it was in a very traditional Middle Eastern way. They started kidnapping the relatives of the people who were holding Alan Johnston and made it very clear that the pressure would continue. They also promised these people a kind of immunity. If they would stop kidnapping, they'd get to keep their weapons, and Hamas would not take after them. We'll see if that holds, but that's really how they did it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain these other actors. The Army of Islam and the Dughmush clan, who are they? What are they after? What's their relationship with Hamas?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, the Dughmush clan is a big family that controls a part of Gaza. And it's sort of infamous for its business activities, both legal and illegal, gun importation, lots of things. It is spread out -- its family members are spread out over various factions.

And it has been affiliated at different moments with Fatah or with Hamas, partly because it's a commercial family rather than an ideological one, but part of the family, particularly the part led by a younger man, named Mumtaz Dughmush, has become increasingly radical and Islamic. And that is the part that seems to have formed this shady, shadowy Army of Islam.

And that group was using a lot of radical Islamic rhetoric and demands, but some people in the Palestinian Authority said mostly that was a cover for ordinary criminal demands for money. We don't really know the truth of that. But the Army of Islam comes out of this larger clan. The clan itself was somewhat divided, but clan loyalties are stronger in Gaza than ideological loyalties almost all the time.

Negotiating Shalit's release

Steven Erlanger
The New York Times
If it were to work out a prisoner exchange with Israel for Gilad Shalit and do it in a relatively generous way, I think that would help Hamas' image quite a lot with the Israelis.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Army of Islam was also implicated or held responsible for the capture about a year ago of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. And today the Hamas leader in Gaza said he hoped that this would lead -- and I'm looking for the quote -- but essentially it would set a precedent for Shalit's release. Do you think it would pave the way for Shalit to be released? And if so, how would that unfold?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, I don't think they're really related, other than that it -- if Hamas, which is actually holding Gilad Shalit, this Israeli corporal, could work out a deal to release him soon, I think that would be a marker to the international community that would be harder to ignore, particularly to the Israelis.

I mean, Hamas is trying to show that it's functional, it's efficient, it's credible, that it is not, you know, the terrorist group that it is classified by the United States and the European Union, and that it should be taken seriously by the West and not isolated.

Now, if it were to work out a prisoner exchange with Israel for Gilad Shalit and do it in a relatively generous way, I think that would help Hamas' image quite a lot with the Israelis. And the Israelis care about Alan Johnston, but, after all, he's a foreign journalist. It's not quite the same as an Israeli soldier captured and held for more than a year.

MARGARET WARNER: But you're saying there's no question at this point that Hamas does have control of Shalit and could do this deal if it wanted to?

STEVEN ERLANGER: That is my understanding. I mean, they had released a tape recording from Gilad Shalit not very long ago in which he said that he was under the control of the Hamas military wing, the Qassam Brigades. And the Hamas military wing was a major part of the operation that captured him a year ago, along with, as we say, the Army of Islam, and this kind of other shadowy group called the Popular Resistance Committees.

Establishing security in Gaza

Steven Erlanger
The New York Times
To some degree, the biggest nightmare for Fatah and, in fact, even for Western and Israeli policy would be if Hamas was allowed to or managed to succeed in pacifying Gaza and making it a fairly orderly place, and even bringing in investment.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you spoke of Hamas' desire to show that it can establish security in Gaza. Why is that? How does that relate to its short- and medium-term strategy now, vis-a-vis its power struggle with the Fatah/Palestinian Authority in the West Bank?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, it's not clear to me that, you know, Hamas' intention from the beginning was to take over Gaza. It was certainly its intention to give Fatah a blow. It keeps talking about wanting to share power and to restore the unity government with Fatah that has now been fired by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas is a little reluctant to be governing alone. And it looks as if its military operation got ahead of its political understanding of what to do next. But in the meantime, Hamas was elected in January of 2006 on a platform of change and reform, a platform of security, of stability, of law and order. And Hamas is trying to show itself to be clean.

And, in fact, in Gaza now, without painting Hamas too wonderfully, because it has done a lot of terrorist acts and it has also threatened Palestinian journalists, but people in Gaza feel safer now. The streets are safer. The in-fighting has stopped. The bullets have stopped, certainly for now. People are out on the streets more.

So Hamas is very eager to prove that it can deliver. I mean, if Fatah is trying to show on the West Bank that the West Bank can be a model for all Palestinians, Hamas is trying to show the same thing in Gaza. And to some degree, the biggest nightmare for Fatah and, in fact, even for Western and Israeli policy would be if Hamas was allowed to or managed to succeed in pacifying Gaza and making it a fairly orderly place, and even bringing in investment.

MARGARET WARNER: A top Hamas leader said today he thought this was going to be a new era, and spoke about establishing security, and protecting foreigners who came into Gaza. Do you think it's safe now for Western reporters to return there, and other Westerners?

STEVEN ERLANGER: If this clan and this group have promised Hamas to leave foreigners alone, if it's no longer clear that kidnapping foreigners is a profitable business, and if Hamas succeeds in pushing down the challenge of so-called jihadist elements within Gaza, then I think it will be much safer. In general, Palestinians have always been very hospitable to foreigners. And even Hamas, you know, has always made a point, sometimes chillingly, saying to people like me, "You know, we're not interested in Americans. We're not interested in your religion. We're not interested in anything. Our fight is with the Israeli occupation only."

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Erlanger of the New York Times, thanks so much.

STEVEN ERLANGER: Thank you.