Representatives of Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, which headed the Palestinian Authority government until June 14, said they had secured Johnston's release and expressed hope that this would change the attitude of the international community, primarily the West, toward their organization. But Hamas will probably still be listed as a terrorist organization by Canada, the European Union, Israel, Japan and the United States.
The Arab world, the West and Israel are divided over their attitude toward Hamas and other "resistance movements," which nonetheless play an important role in the Middle East peace process.
In late June, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), slammed Hamas for using force to take sole control of the Gaza Strip; he unequivocally called its representatives "murderers and terrorists" and refused to negotiate with them.
Although, Abbas's position coincides with that of Israel, the United States and the EU, which have been boycotting Hamas since its victory in the January 25, 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), this does not mean that the Palestinians will reject Hamas and stop resisting.
Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations, who attended the Fifteenth International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, which was organized by the UN together with the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo late this June, told RIA Novosti that Abbas had only been referring to those who had seized power in Gaza, rather than Hamas as a whole.
The annual seminar, which is held in different countries involved in the Middle East peace settlement, aims to promote mutual understanding between journalists, experts and government officials in the Arab world and Israel and to assist with the regional peace process.
In June 2006, the mayors of several Israeli and Palestinian cities attended a similar seminar in Moscow and decided to cooperate at the local level and establish a Steering Committee that would map out joint projects.
Although the Steering Committee's first report was presented at the Tokyo meeting, the situation in Gaza seriously affected the atmosphere of mutual cooperation. First of all, Majid Abu Ramadan, the mayor of Gaza, who was elected to the Steering Committee together with Zvi Zilker, the mayor of Ashdod in Israel, could not come to Japan.
A Palestinian journalist agreed with Ramallah mayor Janet Michael, who said cooperation among municipalities was useful, but stressed that the Palestinians primarily needed peace.
The journalist said one could talk for ever about attaining peace through minor joint projects, but that would not make it a reality. He and most other Arabs present at the seminar said peace required the complete implementation of all UN Security Council resolutions calling for the return of Israeli-occupied territories to Palestine and the solution of the refugee problem.
The Palestinian delegates, however, did not share the optimism of Israeli experts about future dialogue with President Abbas and a new Palestinian government without Hamas. This optimism stems in part from the fact that Israel, and not Palestine, collects all taxes and customs duties. The Israelis, who froze these assets after the Hamas victory, have now started transferring them to Abbas' government.
Ronit Tirosh, a deputy of the Israeli Knesset from the Kadima party, said the Israeli government had made a mistake by not strengthening Abbas's position in Palestine earlier and now this mistake would be corrected.
More lenient regulations for passing through Israeli roadblocks and other measures highlighting the advantages of life without Hamas are expected to make things easier for Jerusalem.
However, all Arab delegates, including the Palestinians, stressed unanimously that these were palliative measures, and that the root cause of the problem was the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Mansour said the problems of Palestine had begun when the peace process stopped, and that similar clashes could also take place on the West Bank. He said this could only be prevented if Israel convinced the Palestinians that peace was possible.
"We need to do more than talk about peace. All those measures were nothing more than bandages on the wounds. Courageous steps are needed to achieve a major breakthrough in the peace process," Mansour said.
Riyad Al-Hassen, head of the Palestinian Public Information Service and Media Adviser to President Abbas, addressed the seminar through a TV link-up because he and many other Palestinians were unable to leave Ramallah.
He said President Abbas must prove that the talks could determine the final status of the Palestinian territories. However, Israel, which is resuming talks with President Abbas, hardly wants this to happen.
Israeli journalist Ben Caspit said the government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were too weak to negotiate a permanent settlement, and that an Israeli-Syrian peace pact was more likely.
Israeli journalists preferred to talk to their Syrian counterpart behind the scenes rather than to the Palestinian delegation. Syrian and Saudi Arabian delegations have never attended media seminars on peace in the Middle East before, and their presence this time implied that their respective governments wanted peace in the region.
It was impossible to imagine even a few years ago that Syrian and Saudi Arabian representatives would negotiate with their Israeli colleagues in Tokyo. This highlights drastic changes in the Middle East and proves that the Arab world recognizes Israel.
Many Israelis are overjoyed at President Abbas's decision not to deal with Hamas. However, although many Arab governments and public figures are unhappy about Hamas' actions in the Gaza Strip and fear that the movement could also seize power on the West Bank, none of them reject Islamists, and they do not want the resistance to end until all UN Security Council resolutions are implemented.
Unlike Israeli delegates, who argued with each other about the optimal peace settlement and their relation to Hamas throughout the entire seminar, representatives of Hamas, Fatah (the dominant party in the PLO), Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were not divided on this issue.
Michael told RIA Novosti that President Abbas would have to negotiate with Hamas sooner or later. Moscow also understands this. However, the EU, the United States and Israel still believe that Hamas can be neutralized.
Consequently, the Islamic movement's efforts to release Alan Johnston will hardly be viewed as an indication of its readiness to negotiate.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.