Page last updated at 17:01 GMT, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Bowen diary: Syrian warning

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

Children in Damascus protest against Israel's offensive in Gaza. Photo: 14 January 2009
Images of suffering Gazan children strike a very hard chord in Syria

14 January, Damascus

I have travelled to Damascus to interview the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. When I arrived I put on the TV and watched the latest horrific pictures from Gaza.

Most of the population of Syria will have spent quite a bit of the evening doing the same. The images of children, dead and wounded, and of the suffering and dispossession of another generation of Palestinians strike a very hard chord here.

The last time I was here before Christmas, I was on the plane of the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. We flew direct from Tel Aviv to Damascus. It took less than 30 minutes from take-off to landing.

Syrian president on Gaza conflict

This time my journey involved two flights with a stopover in Istanbul. It took eight hours door-to-door, from Jerusalem to Damascus.

As usual, the jump between Israel and the Arab world is a reminder of how far apart they are politically. If the border was open it would take about three hours by road.

The Syrian regime is closer to its people on Gaza than regimes in other Arab countries, especially Egypt.

The official Syrian position of encouraging "resistance" and its support for Hamas - the exiled political leader of Hamas Khaled Meshaal lives here - means that President Assad is in tune with the mood on the streets. The Egyptians have had to deploy riot police to control demonstrations supporting Gaza.

The interview with Mr Assad was held in the library of an opulent building in the palace compound, which is on the rocky hill that dominates Damascus.

I am going back down south tomorrow.

13 January, Jerusalem

Ruined building in Gaza - photo 13 January
Will Israel's bombardment of Gaza make its own citizens feel any more secure?

There is an excellent piece in the International Herald Tribune today from Ethan Bronner. He looks at why Israelis think they are fighting a just war and why people in many other places think they are not.

Bronner interviews a professor of philosophy who helped write the Israeli army's ethics code. The professor points out that many Israelis feel that they are fighting for their existence, because they see Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, as spearheads of a much bigger threat, from Iran and Israel's other enemies in the Middle East.

That is why Israelis believe that their plight is unique, and their actions justified.

When I spoke to Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Israeli opposition party Likud, a few days into the bombing campaign, he compared the action in Gaza to Britain's response to Germany in 1940. (Mr Netanyahu might be prime minister after the elections in February).

The same message comes from all angles on the Israeli side.

I had a talk with an Israeli military spokesman yesterday afternoon at the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza. He covered all the points in Israel's narrative - that they are fighting in self-defence, that the Israeli army takes extreme pains not to kill civilians, and that any country in the world would do the same in response to attack.

I'm struck by the constant Israeli message that "any other country in the world would do the same". Would they? Comparisons are difficult, because the century-long conflict between the Arabs and the Jews is one of a kind.

I'm not saying, by the way, that there are not any other long-running, bitter and bloody conflicts in the world.

But I don't know of another one which has so many international ramifications, and above all I don't know of one that has the same capacity to enrage people all over the world, even if they have never been to this small patch of the planet.

Ulster parallels

I have never liked comparisons between Northern Ireland and the conflict here. Apart from the fact that they are not always helpful, writing and broadcasting about the Middle East is a good enough way to make enemies. I don't need another set.

But think about this. For many years Britain faced an insurgency and at times a low-level civil war in Northern Ireland. Those sorts of terms weren't used all that much but that's what it was.

Israeli reservists enter Gaza Strip - photo 12 January
Israelis feel that they are fighting for their very existence

At different times the IRA planted bombs on the British mainland that killed people and did a lot of damage. The actions of the British security forces during three decades of the Troubles were very controversial, and still are today. Sometimes the British army killed innocent people.

But Britain never used heavy weapons, fast jets, air strikes and attack helicopters. Tracked armoured vehicles were very rarely seen.

And it has emerged that there were many secret contacts over the years with the paramilitaries. In the end, there were years of negotiations. Prisoners who were serving long sentences were released as part of the price of peace, even, in the phrase used in this part of the world, if they had "blood on their hands".

There is no doubt about the extreme suffering that Israel is inflicting on Palestinians in Gaza to protect, in its view, its own citizens. It is deepening the hatred for Israel that many people in Gaza felt anyway.

Israel has used what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert calls the iron fist many times before. And its citizens still feel insecure.

Will they feel any different when this latest episode is over?

Previous diary entries by Jeremy Bowen:

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