Page last updated at 15:10 GMT, Saturday, 10 January 2009

Bowen diary: The days before war

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

Smoke billows over Gaza on January 10 as seen from Israel/Gaza border
Smoke billows over Gaza as Israel's offensive enters a third week

10 January, Tel Aviv airport

I am going to London for a very quick break. I have now spent two weeks looking over the border at the war in Gaza, unable to get in.

The only foreign journalist Israel has allowed into Gaza in the last fortnight was a cameraman, my friend Sarge from the BBC, who went in for a day with the army.

My last visit was a week or so before the formal end of the ceasefire on 19 December.

I try to visit places in the Middle East that are newsworthy at times when I don't actively have to do a story. It is easier to have a proper talk when you don't have a deadline and a camera breathing down your neck.

I am sitting on an airliner on a beautiful Tel Aviv winter morning, with the takeoff delayed because Heathrow Airport is iced-up and fog-bound.

I am going through my notebook from that last trip to Gaza. A fortnight later, the war started. Bearing in mind what is happening now, it is interesting to see what was being said then.

'Quick getaway'

I sat with Mahmoud Zahar, who is considered the most influential Hamas political leader in Gaza, at his home in a big reception room, about the size of a tennis court. I'll very surprised if it is still standing.

It was furnished with chairs all around the walls, in the typical local style, but it had a big garage door at one end.

Two 4x4s were parked next to it, inside the room. He said it was in case the Israelis were coming and he needed a quick getaway. They were parked nose in, so they would have to reverse out.

Dr Zahar had just heard on the BBC that Barack Obama had a plan to visit a Muslim country early in his term. He seemed pleased.

Mahmoud Zahar
Dr Zahar says an Islamic empire will stretch from Nigeria to Indonesia one day
"Barack HUSSEIN Obama," he said, pronouncing the President-elect's name with relish.

"Change in the US is good for the Palestinian people, not because of Obama, but because of the absence of Bush... If he's going to start reconciliation then it's good for America... But Obama will be a friend of Israel... We can't expect an angel from the US side. He'll be under the control of the Zionist lobby."

Police from the rival Palestinian faction Fatah were arresting Hamas people in the West Bank and confiscating weapons. Dr Zahar wasn't bothered.

"The arrests aren't damaging... Weapons are cheap but our people are precious - and they haven't changed their minds."

'Magic word'

He was just as dismissive about Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister ("a criminal"), Israeli president Shimon Peres ("a big liar") Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the rival Palestinian government in Ramallah ("he's in London getting his latest orders") - and rude, too, about Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president ("he won't get a state, he's just a bodyguard for Israel".)

Weapons are cheap but our people are precious - and they haven't changed their minds
Mahmoud Zahar

But Dr Zahar didn't want to talk much about current events. Instead he went to a globe on a table nearby, and showed me how one day an Islamic empire would stretch from Nigeria to Indonesia.

"Identity is the magic word" he said. "Religion gives you identity... And resistance is a sense of belief... Our dignity was deeply affected by the establishment of Israel."

What about the future? "We'd accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza, without recognising Israel."

Then I went to see the Hamas political advisor Ahmed Yousef in his office in a scruffy concrete building, about half a dozen stories high.

A signboard propped on the dusty ground outside said it was the foreign ministry.

'Nothing to lose'

Since an Israeli raid into Gaza on 4 November tension had been very high, and Hamas had resumed rocketing Israel.

A Grad rocket had been fired at Ashkelon, the Israeli town north of Gaza.

"It was just a signal, aimed at the outskirts."

Would Israel invade? "We don't care. We have nothing to lose. People are dying already because of a lack of supplies. It's not just military action that kills."

What about renewing the ceasefire? "There's no decision yet, we're consulting about what will happen on 19 December."

What sort of ceasefire is it if you're still under siege? "If Israel had good intentions about the ceasefire it would have been serious about easing the tension... Their generals show toughness by keeping the killing cycle going. The guy with more Palestinian blood on his hands has a better chance to win."

Barack Obama
Hamas leaders hoped change in the US would be good for Palestinians

What about Obama? "We've heard talk of change and we hope Middle East policy will be changed. Let's wait and see. We'd like someone to take the Palestinian issue seriously. Remember the hare and the tortoise. He needs to be the tortoise, not the hare. Don't leave it to the end."

Why should Obama get involved? "If the US doesn't change, nothing will change, because the Palestinian question is the mother of all conflict, and if there is no change, anti-American sentiment should increase.... Israel isn't interested in peace, just in managing the conflict."

It was a Friday, so the ministry was almost empty. Ahmed Yousef is an engaging man. He likes talking about the books he's written and the ones he's working on.

As I left the foreign ministry I saw they still hadn't fixed a bullet hole in the front door, which I assumed had been there since the shoot-outs between Hamas and Fatah in the summer of 2007.

It would have been a waste of time anyway. A couple of days into the war, Israel destroyed the building with a very big bomb.

Degrees of danger

I got back into the BBC armoured vehicle with Hamada Abu Qammar, who is one of our Gaza producers.

You may have heard him on the BBC from Gaza in the last two weeks. As the correspondents can't get in, Hamada and his colleague Rushdi Abu Alouf are on broadcasting duties.

Hamada is a charming guy who taught English at a UN school before he turned to journalism. Early in the war, he told me he had evacuated his family from their home in a refugee camp. It turned out they had moved a few hundred yards.

In Gaza, where it is now about degrees of danger since there's nowhere safe, every yard counts.

Bleak prospects

The last appointment, a quick one as I had to get back to the Erez crossing before it closed, was with John Ging. He runs the Gaza operations of Unrwa, the UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees.

John is a dedicated and intense Irishman. He was bleak about the prospects for Gaza, and seething with frustration about Israel's behaviour during the five-month ceasefire. It didn't let Unrwa fill up its warehouses.

"We were not allowed to reconstitute our stocks during the ceasefire... That belies the Israeli argument about security. They didn't allow stocks in when the ceasefire was on."

"The Israelis were fully informed of the situation. For five months we were not allowed to reconstitute our reserves. So when the ceasefire broke down we ran out of food for the 750,000 who depend on us. Access for food and medicine is problematic "

John Ging
John Ging runs the UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees

"We tell the Palestinians that rockets are illegal and bad. Then we have five months without rockets and things don't improve. It plays into the hands of extremists."

He groped for a positive. In early December, despite the rocket fire that followed the 4 November Israeli raid there were still hopes in Gaza that the ceasefire could be revived.

"The good news is that most people here support the return of the ceasefire. So we're hopeful we will be able to return to it and have no rockets."

He sounded as if he was trying to convince himself more than me.

John ran through the litany of misery that existed in Gaza before the Israeli offensive. Of course it is many times worse now.

"There's one million on food aid, including 750,000 refugees. 80% are below the poverty line, meaning they live on less than $2 a day. Almost 100,000 jobs have gone in the last 18 months, since the total Israeli embargo came in. [Because that included most building materials] $93m of Unrwa construction projects, medical centres, houses for refugees, all are stopped. 3,200 out of 3,500 Gaza businesses have gone down in the siege."

"There's no ray of sunlight. It's all going in the wrong direction. It's all well documented and predictable."

"The Quartet [of the US, UN, Russia and the EU] said a new approach was needed for Gaza. In fact there are even stricter sanctions."

John Ging was out of Gaza when Israel attacked on 27 December. He managed to get back into Gaza a few days later. He is back at work, supervising Unrwa's operations.

Ahmed Yousef finally replied to one of my messages a few days ago. But since then I haven't been able to get through to him.

Mahmoud Zahar made a broadcast this week from wherever he's hiding in Gaza. He said victory was coming, and that the death and hardship inflicted by Israel was a 'tax' on Palestinian resistance.

Previous diary entries by Jeremy Bowen:

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