Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

Bowen diary: Powerless amid pain

BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen is writing a diary of the conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Palestinian girl reacts after Israeli military air strike
The Palestinian Authority has been a bystander as the Gaza conflict unfolds

9 January, Jerusalem

Last night I went to the see the Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in his office in Ramallah on the West Bank. I think it is fair to describe him as the West's favourite Palestinian. He is an economist by training, was educated in the United States and used to work for the International Monetary Fund.

Mr Fayyad is a reasonable man. He is committed to finding a non-violent way to create a Palestinian state. Israel cannot say it doesn't have a partner for peace while he's around.

But the pain that all Palestinians are feeling at the moment was very apparent in him too. He stood in front of his desk with a sheaf of photos of dead Palestinian children in Gaza. One girl, probably about 3, had been partly dug out of rubble. Her dusty face was framed with shards of concrete. Another picture showed a man carrying the charred body of a small child. And so it went on, a whole stack of them.

Palestinian boy in Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza Strip (09/01/2009)

Officials in Mr Ehud's office were quoted as saying "the Israeli military will continue to protect Israeli civilians and carry out its missions".

The Palestinian Authority is a bystander in this war. Mr Fayyad accepted that there was not much he could do, except use his position to push for a ceasefire, which is why he wanted to give the BBC an interview.

The report I did which included Mr Fayyad and his photos also contained some very graphic television pictures of war. Yet another courageous cameraman from a TV news agency had run to a place in Gaza where shells had just exploded. People were dying on the streets in front of him.

How much is too much?

In more than 20 years of doing stories like this, I have had many discussions about how much violence to show. Reporters and producers in the field usually want to show more graphic images than the people back on the editorial desks in London. I would say we broadcast more now than we did 15 years ago during the Balkan wars.

Western broadcasters are more squeamish than the Arabic satellite channels. We worry about our viewers' feelings, and also about the privacy of victims. I think those are fair considerations. I would not like my children to see many of my reports.

But the Arab channels take the view that if it happened, and you don't show it, you're covering up the truth.

8 January, Jerusalem

I am not down at the border today. Instead I am working out of the office in Jerusalem.

Mainly it's because this is a better place to pull today's story together, considering that we still can't get into Gaza.

It's also because I need a chance to think and talk to people. I could do without the driving and the mud for a day too. And not wearing a flak jacket is as good as a rest.

How long is this going to go on? Everyone is asking me that, and I am asking everyone. And the only answer now is that nobody really knows.

Ceasefire options

The only ceasefire plan worthy of the name seems to be the one put together by the two presidents, Sarkozy of France and Mubarak of Egypt.

For Israel, a ceasefire needs to stop rocket fire into Israel.

One Israeli politician told me today that any leader here who pulls out the troops without stopping the rockets might as well as pack his bags and go straight to the airport.

Israel is also interested in the Franco-Egyptian proposal because it contains ideas for controlling the border between Gaza and Egypt, so that Hamas would not be able to rearm.

That, according to Palestinian groups, including Hamas, who have been meeting in Damascus makes it a non-starter. They say it would strangle what they call the resistance.

One Israeli in the government here said: "They're right. That's exactly the point. We want it to strangle them."

Hamas has laid out its conditions for a ceasefire. Israel, it says, must stop its offensive, pull out of Gaza, and all the border crossings between Israel and Egypt must open.

In other words the two sides are way apart. That suggests this will go on.

Cross-border rockets

One more point. Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that fought Israel to a standstill in 2006, says they didn't fire the rockets that hit Israel this morning, and the Israelis agree.

The Israelis are saying that it was lucky no-one was killed, because never mind who did it, they would have retaliated far more forcefully than they did.

And if Israel starts bombing Lebanon again, Hezbollah is much more likely to fire back.

Before Hezbollah issued their denial, I asked a friend of mine in Beirut if she thought they had done it.

No she said, this was kids' stuff. If Hezbollah were to attack, they'd do it properly.

7 January: Southern Israel, near Khan Younis

Israeli soldiers mourn their colleague Nitai Stern
Israeli soldiers mourned their colleague Nitai Stern
It's just before 4 o'clock in the afternoon local time.

We're at the top of an observation tower that gives a good view of Khan Younis.

It's part of a memorial to Israeli dead from the 1967 war, when Israel captured Gaza.

We're here to see what happens when the three-hour pause in the war runs out.

At a checkpoint near here were some Israeli soldiers in combat gear.

They were in their first few months in uniform, and being young men, were itching to be part of the action. Instead they were stuck at a checkpoint.

We gave one a cigarette and he cheered up.

4.05pm: Khan Younis is laid out in front of us. I can see the minarets of the mosques. The sky is perfectly blue.

A drone spy plane is buzzing slowly overhead, looking down, presumably for something for the air force to attack.

Higher, and moving faster, is the silver shape of a warplane.

I can't see what kind it is. F-15s have twin tailfins and F-16s only one, but it's too far away to make it out.

Once, in a more peaceful time, I asked an old lady if her grandson, who was about 10, had ever been outside Gaza.

Because of Israel's regulations, many young people in the Gaza Strip have never left it.

She thought I was asking if he had ever travelled out of Gaza City. She looked indignant, as if I was suggesting that his family weren't educating him properly.

"Of course he's been away," she said. "He's been to Khan Younis."

I meant had he ever left the Gaza Strip.

4.08pm: Well away from Khan Younis a column of black smoke rises in the air. It looks as if the war has started again.

6 January: Jerusalem

International journalists are not being allowed into Gaza, so many are reporting from just inside Israel

I'm writing this at the funeral of one of the Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza last night. His name was Nitai Stern and he was 21 years old.

It is beautiful sunlit day at the Mt Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. A military helicopter is clattering by overhead, heading south towards Gaza.

The sound, just for a moment, is drowning out the weeping of Nitai Stern's family and friends. You can hear the sobs as they call out his name.

Some of the dead man's comrades from his unit, the Golani Brigade, are here, and some of them are weeping too.

The funeral of anyone young feels like such a waste. You can't try to make it a celebration of life, which sometimes feels right if someone has lived to a great old age.

A Palestinian man mourns for his family
Palestinians and Israelis have been grieving for those killed in the violence

Seeing a life snuffed out when it is hardly started is just a tragedy.

Last night we had pictures out of Gaza of a Palestinian man saying goodbye to his dead son, who couldn't have been more than a year old.

He kissed the boy's face, and kept murmuring "you're gone, you're gone".

His wife and two other children were also killed.

We also had pictures of the same man in the mortuary, with the wrapped bodies of the children, and sitting outside on the doorstep, sobbing.

I would like to tell you a lot more about what happened to his family, but I can't.

I'm not even sure how they died. Some reports said it was an air strike, others said it was tank fire.

Israel's ban on the entry of international journalists to the Gaza Strip means that we can't originate very much of our own material from there.

Most of the pictures you will have seen have come from some very brave cameramen working for Reuters and APTN, the two big news agencies that sell news material to broadcasters like the BBC.

I can tell you that Nitai Stern had hundreds of friends and family at his funeral.

But I don't even know the name of the poor heartbroken man in Gaza, or of his dead wife, and his dead children.

5 January: Israel-Gaza border

It is never too early to talk about the endgame when people are being killed. A deluge of envoys comes in today. President Sarkozy of France is due here, and Javier Solana of the European Union, and Tony Blair of the Quartet of the UN, US, Russia and the EU has been around for a few days. The talk is of ceasefires.

Israel has made clear that the only kind of ceasefire it wants is one that does not allow a return to the status quo. In other words, no rockets, no tunnels from Egypt, and in an ideal world for Israel, no Hamas either.

Hamas has had a long term ceasefire with Israel as an official policy for some time. I have spent quite a bit of time in the last year talking to Hamas leaders, so even though it is next to impossible to reach them at the moment, I think I have a reasonable grasp of their mindset. They think long term.

Mahmoud Zahar, one of their leaders in Gaza put out a statement this morning that said they were "paying the tax" for victory. Hamas wants to emulate Hezbollah in Lebanon, by still being able to fight when the ceasefire comes. Then men like Mr Zahar will claim victory, just as Hezbollah did after the summer war of 2006.

Covering the war

This diary is not going to be about the media, but in the interests of full disclosure I will try to expose some of the workings of the news machine here.

The days are long for a reporter covering the war. Since I came over here from London the day after Israel started its offensive, I have spent part of every day in Jerusalem, and then gone down to the border with Gaza, which is about an hour and a half away by car.

The terrain is flat, but there are a few small hills which have been colonised by TV teams and their satellite trucks.

Journalists stand there, trying to get a long range view of what is going on, and pictures of Israeli attacks. It has got harder in the last few days, as the Israelis have penetrated deeper into the Gaza Strip.

They are further away, and harder to see. You can also get to Sderot or one of the other Israeli towns within rocket-range of Gaza.

Moves are being made to send a small pool of Jerusalem-based journalists into Gaza, but until that happens - or until Israel allows open access to Gaza - most of the BBC coverage comes from the Israeli side. The shining exceptions are our two Gaza-based journalists, Rushdi Abu Alouf and Hamada Abu Qammar.

A 'pool' by the way, is a term used in the news business to describe a process by which reporters make their work available to colleagues. The process is usually fraught, because the news business is a competitive trade.

Recent reports by Jeremy Bowen:

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