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Johnston Release: What's Behind It?

(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
One has to imagine Hamas is happy with the opening line of this Washington Post story: "An ebullient and relieved Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent set free Wednesday after 114 days as a captive in the Gaza Strip, suggested that the turning point leading to his release was Hamas's takeover of the strip."

We're thrilled for Johnston's release, of course. But we're also interested in the motivations and tactics behind it. For starters, we know Hamas has gotten a big PR boost from the Johnston affair, with the former captive applauding its efforts and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband saying Hamas played a "crucial role" in Johnston's release.

Said Johnston: "If Hamas didn't come in and put the heat on, I'm pretty sure I'd still be there."

Not everyone is offering up love for Hamas, however – which, in case you've forgotten, "is widely considered a terrorist organization committed to fundamentalist Islamic rule" and the eradication of Israel. As if to remind the press corps reporting on Johnston's release, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office issued a statement calling for the release of soldier Gilad Shalit, a prisoner of Hamas.

In light of the Shalit situation and other aspects of Hamas' record, Tom Gross at National Review Online's Media Blog is complaining about the way the Johnston story has been covered. "The BBC interviewers [speaking to Hamas spokesmen] didn't even mention Shalit but instead kept on repeating (wrongly) that Johnston was the longest held captive in Gaza," he writes.

In the meantime, officials from Fatah – Hamas' (more moderate) political rival in the region – say Hamas engineered the release to try to gain some international legitimacy in the wake of disturbing images from its recent takeover of Gaza. "I think that this was staged by Hamas to appear as if it respects international law," Yasser Abed Rabbo told the Associated Press.

Hamas is clearly trying to walk a delicate political line in all this -- check out this graf from the AP story:

Gaza's Hamas rulers said Johnston's release marked the beginning of a new era of law and order in the lawless coastal strip, including a crackdown on vigilante gunmen. However, they also acknowledged they would not disarm Johnston's captors, the Army of Islam, which has close ties to one of Gaza's most powerful clans.
One last important, if awkward, issue to bring up: It's impossible to tell exactly how genuine Johnston's praise of Hamas ultimately is. He could be completely sincere in his praising of the group that engineered his release. He also may be going out of his way to compliment the group because doing so was a condition of his release. Quotes like this one, from Johnson, don't make it particularly easy to sort that side of this out: "If it hadn't been for that real serious Hamas pressure, that commitment to tidying up Gaza's many, many security problems, then I might have been in that room for a lot longer."