At Least 5 Palestinians Killed in Counter-Terrorism Operations in Gaza

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - At least five Palestinians were killed in five separate incidents in the Gaza Strip during Israeli counter-terror operations there on Thursday.

The raids came one day after Hamas freed captive British Broadcasting Corporation journalist Alan Johnston, in an apparent public relations move.

Israeli forces were carrying out "routine" operations near the security fence with Israel, an army spokeswoman said. They were searching for tunnels and working to stop rocket launchings from the Gaza Strip into Israel, she said.

Palestinians reported at least five killed, at least three of them Hamas militants. Israel said the gunmen were approaching Israeli troops operating in the area. The Israeli Air Force opened fire on them from above, sparking clashes with the Israeli troops, the army said.

Hamas claimed a major victory on Wednesday when it helped arrange the release of Johnston. Analysts said the move was intended to show that Hamas can bring law and order to the chaos among Palestinians and should be considered a legitimate force.

Johnston was the only foreign journalist still permanently based in Gaza when he was kidnapped in March by a group calling itself the Army of Islam -- run by a heavily armed family clan with alleged links to al Qaeda.

Ironically, the BBC is known for being decidedly pro-Palestinian in its reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Several years ago, the Israeli government refused to work with the BBC, citing its anti-Israel bias.

Johnston was released early Wednesday and met with deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Johnston credited the Hamas terrorist organization for his release.

"I'm pretty sure that if Hamas hadn't come in and turned the heat on, I'd still be in that room," Johnston told reporters at a press conference later in the day. "Hamas has a huge law and order agenda," Johnston said.

Even though Hamas is considered controversial in the international community, "it is better at keeping law and order than many would agree. And God knows Gaza needs law and order," Johnston said.

Johnston, who is a native of Scotland, emerged from his ordeal looking thinner but relieved. He said throughout the ordeal that he was terrified but not abused. He said in an interview with the BBC that he did not know if he "was going to live or die."

He reported from Gaza for three years but said he had had "enough already with Gaza."

Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was quoted by Reuters as saying that Hamas' efforts had "produced the freedom of Alan Johnston."

But Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, said that Johnston's release had been staged since Hamas and the Army of Islam were working together in order to "appear as if [Hamas] respects international law."

"We're watching a movie, where the thieves in Gaza fall out and one of them claims to be honest and brave, and the other is the bad guy. This Hamas game fools no one," Rabbo was quoted as saying.

The Jerusalem Post's Arab affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh said that Hamas was hoping to win international recognition by the move.

"Hamas leaders...knew that a picture with the freed British reporter would improve their image in the West and send a message that Hamas can deliver," Toameh wrote in Thursday's paper.

"They also knew that his release would serve to undermine what's left of Fatah's credibility," Toameh said.

Ali Waked wrote in the Israeli internet site YNET that Johnston's release was a "grand achievement" for Hamas.

"Hamas is now sending a message to the Palestinians, and even more so to the international community, that it is not just an extremist movement, but rather, a movement that also knows how to be pragmatic and resolve crises," Waked said.

Abbas will "no doubt" be asked how could "tens of thousands of security forces under his command fail where Hamas' security force succeeded."

But despite Hamas' "huge achievements" in the struggle for "prestige and public opinion" within the P.A., Waked said, it is "highly doubtful" that it will improve Hamas' worldwide image.

According to the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al Arabiyeh, Hamas agreed to give weapons and ammunition to the Army of Islam in exchange for Johnston's release, Israel Radio reported on Thursday.

Senior Israeli defense officials were quoted as saying that they believed that Hamas had paid millions of dollars to the Army of Islam as a ransom for Johnston.

Israel welcomed Johnston's release and demanded that its own soldier Gilad Shalit, abducted more than a year ago, be released as well.

Haniyeh indicated earlier that he hoped Shalit's case would end in "an honorable deal" that would secure the release of Palestinian prisoners jailed for terrorist-related activities in Israel.

Israel, along with the U.S. and most of the West, has refused to deal with Hamas, considering it a terrorist organization.

Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a violent struggle against Abbas' Fatah faction last month, further isolating the Gaza Strip from international support other than humanitarian aid.

Israel, the U.S., Europe, Egypt and Jordan have all thrown their support behind Abbas. Israel has just released some $120 million in frozen tax revenues to the P.A. in the West Bank in an attempt to bolster Abbas.

Many Palestinian civil servants received their first full paycheck in more than a year on Wednesday thanks to the influx of cash.

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