One captive freed, one jailed again
FREE at last! Alan Johnston (left) breakfasts with Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and Hamas leaders. Will British Foreign Office admit talking to Hamas can be helpful?
(Photograph: Hatem Moussa/AP)
JAILED again, Mordechai Vanunu, seen here(in white shirt) with visitors including, on his left, Jewish socialist and comic Ivor Dembina. Vanunu is charged with "meeting foreigners". If the ex-nuclear technician still has secrets to pass on we've not noticed any hidden in Ivor's gags. But he'll be watching for Mossad men taking notes in his audience.
IT's an ill wind.... After all sorts of rumours and threats that he was wearing an explosive body belt which would be detonated if there were attempts to free him, BBC reporter Alan Johnston has been freed in Gaza, in what looks like a triumph for Hamas and prime minister Ismail Haniyeh's efforts to establish order in the Gaza Strip.
The BBC man's kidnap by a wild outfit had been condemned by all main Palestinian parties, but anarchic conditions unleashed by Israeli attacks and the Fatah-Hamas conflict left such groups free to rampage.
The Hamas authorities had promised to obtain Johnston's release, and their combination of negotiation and warnings to the kidnappers reached its climax on Tuesday, after members of Hamas Executive Force took up positions from 5.30am on rooftops surrounding the compound of the Dogmush family in Gaza City's Sabra district. The clan was seen as central to the so-called Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) which claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.
The forces closed off all streets in the area and checked cars and individuals who wanted to leave the area. There was sporadic shooting throughout the day and one passerby was shot dead in crossfire. Several family members were detained. As night fell the Hamas men moved in on the Dogmush compound.
It is reported that the Popular Resistance Committees which had previously been reported as close to Jaish al-Islam sent a delegate to Mumtash Dogmush to persuade him to negotiate surrender of the captive.
This morning a smiling Alan Johnston was seen taking breakfast with Prime Minster Haniyeh, and the Guardian called his release a PR triumph for Hamas.
If so, it is a setback for the Israeli and US government's efforts to isolate Gaza and Hamas, using the authority of Palestinian President Abbas, who had officially dismissed the prime minister and set up a rival government on the West Bank.
Ironically, however it may offer new hope to at least one Israeli family, that of captured 19-year old corporal Gilad Shalit, who is also reportedly being held by Jaish al-Islam. It was his capture, dubbed "kidnapping" by Israeli and Western media, which was made the pretext for Israel's siege and incursions into Gaza, leading to the war in Lebanon after Hizbollah forces sought to ease pressure on the Palestinians by taking more Israeli soldiers prisoner. Israel has refused to negotiate any prisoner exchange, preferring to launch attacks which failed to liberate anybody.
Following the split between the Palestinian president backed by Fatah and the Hamas prime minister, Israel and its Western backers released Palestinian funds -but not to Gaza where they are most needed - and the Israeli government pointedly agreed to free some 250, exclusively Fatah, prisoners - out of the 10,000 Palestinians it is holding. Yet if it really cares about freeing Gilad Shalit it will have to relent and negotiate with the elected Hamas government.
Prime Minister Haniyeh said today that he wanted to pursue an honourable deal with Israel on the freeing of Shalit.
Meanwhile on the same day Alan Johnston was released, news came that another prisoner, who had been held much longer, faced renewed incarceration. Mordechai Vanunu, the former Dimona nuclear technician who blew the whistle on Israel's nuclear weapons has been jailed again by a Jerusalem court for talking to foreigners in breach of his parole conditions.
Vanunu has been given six months jail, and another six months suspended.
The sentence follows a conviction in April for breaching his conditions 14 times by making contact with foreigners and "leaving the country" - travelling to Bethlehem at Christmas. (Perhaps we should be grateful in passing for the Israeli courts' acknowledgement that Bethlehem is not part of Israel, but occupied Palestine. Unfortunately it does not prevent them sending in soldiers and settlers). Vanunu became a Christian while in Australia, before he decided to expose the nuclear programme.
Kidnapped by Mossad after he came to London and gave information to the Sunday Times, he was held for 18 years. After his release in 2004 he was still not allowed to leave the country, and spent much of his time confined to the home of Jerusalem's Anglican bishop Ria, where was given sanctuary. though recently he decided to move out to make his own home.
In his ruling Judge Yoel Tzur wrote that it was "not easy" to sentence Vanunu to more prison time, "especially since the accused served a long prison sentence in the past, most of it in solitary confinement". But, Mr Tzur wrote, "it appears that the accused displayed total disdain" for the restrictions imposed on him.
Vanunu's defence team said before the conviction that the terms of their client's parole order were unreasonable, and depended on the theory that Vanunu still retained top secret information from his work at Dimona more than 20 years ago.
Vanunu's lawyer, Michael Sfard, said the prosecution had not suggested that anything that Vanunu had said in all of the conversations had in any way been damaging to the security of the state. Vanunu was being jailed for a purely formal breach of his release conditions.
Mr Sfard said that he had also told the court that sending Vanunu back to prison was unnecessarily harsh, considering the punishment he had already suffered. "If they want to make him a martyr, then that is the way to do it."
Avigdor Feldman, another of Vanunu's lawyers, told reporters after the hearing that the limitations placed on Vanunu "had no equal in any other democratic country" and called the sentence "unreasonable". After the verdict was announced, Vanunu said that his conviction proved that Israel was still ruled, in effect, by the British mandate, because the law under which he was convicted is from that era. "Maybe I need to turn to the Queen or to Tony Blair in order to grant me justice," he said.
But we the Queen's subjects, having seen off Blair only to learn that he is Middle East "peace envoy", should certainly say something. Elected Rector of Glasgow University three years ago, it is time Vanunu was allowed to leave Israel and come to Britain.