Page last updated at 17:18 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Bowen diary: Damascus to Jerusalem

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

Palestinians in Ramallah, West Bank, protest against the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Photo: 15 January 2009
The Israeli offensive is generating anger and despair in the Arab world

15 January

A couple of passengers on the plane from Damascus were talking about the latest news from Gaza.

Like everyone else in this part of the world, they have been watching it constantly. They were Jordanians of Palestinian origin. They told me that their jobs often took them to Israel, but they hadn't been since the war started in Gaza.

Both said they didn't know what they would do the next time a trip to Israel came up.

"I'm just too angry," one of them said. "I don't know how I'm even going to be able to look at them."

Their plan was to take some sick leave instead. Not exactly armed insurrection, but these were educated people with good jobs who had travelled the world.

If Israel is generating hatred and disgust in the kind of people who instinctively believe in compromise and peace then you have to ask how, long-term, the current military operation is making its people safer.

And you have to wonder about the reaction of Arabs who are not doing well out of the way the Middle East is now.

'Many shells'

I did not have any idea of how much worse it was getting in Gaza until I got off the plane in Amman.

My Blackberry woke up and emails started to come in. One, at 0927, was from our Gaza producer, Hamada Abu Qammar.

The fact that there are good Palestinian journalists in Gaza means that accurate and trustworthy accounts of what is happening are getting out

He said that Israel tanks were advancing from the south into Gaza City firing "many, many shells".

Hamada said that our other Gaza producer, Rushdi Abu Alouf, lived in the area. He wrote: "He is in danger I think. Surrounded and may be under fire from tank shells."

By then I was driving down to the Jordan Valley, and the Allenby Bridge back into the West Bank. I got the driver to tune into BBC World Service.

Palestinians not in Gaza are walking around with the dazed look of people who are caught up in something that they cannot stop.

Some of them were in the terminal where you wait to cross from Jordan to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It is always a time-consuming performance.

While I was waiting, I bumped into a Palestinian acquaintance. The TV was on in the corner, and he pointed out an elegantly dressed middle aged woman: "She's just seen on the TV that her house in Gaza has been destroyed."

I caught up with her on the Israeli side, in the passport queue. I won't give her name but she was from a prominent Palestinian family.

She said that she already knew about the house by the time it was on the TV, and that it was the second time the Israelis had done it. Her father's house, she said, was also flattened. Her eyes filled with tears.

An Israeli woman who had been helping me with some of the red tape at the border overheard the conversation. She looked like she didn't know how to react, or perhaps she did not want to get into a debate about Israel's actions.

Foreign media ban

By 1101, I was on the road from Jericho up to Jerusalem, when another email reported that fires caused by shelling were burning at the main Unrwa compound in Gaza.

About then I heard Rushdie, live on the phone from his own home, with a very level headed account of what was happening around him.

If you are a reporter parachuted into a place, even one you know well, generally any trouble that happens does not feel personal. I have never had to describe advancing tanks viewed from my own front room and I hope I never have to.

The logical thing to do for any reporter is to narrow the distance between yourself and the story.

But I stopped in Jerusalem and went into the office. Why? Because Israel still won't let foreign correspondents into Gaza.

So I have been following it on the wires and through the messages coming from our guys.

At 1517, Hamada messaged that the UN HQ was burning again, and huge clouds of black smoke were covering most of the southern part of the city.

Later on, Rushdi got his family out to somewhere safer.

Israel has cited all kinds of logistical and safety reasons for not obeying its Supreme Court ruling ordering the entry of a small group of foreign journalists into Gaza. Obviously, the Israelis feel that they are better able to control the news agenda by restricting the right of reporters to report.

But the fact that there are good Palestinian journalists in Gaza means that accurate and trustworthy accounts of what is happening are getting out.

The lesson is that in the wired world it is harder than ever to hide the truth.

Previous diary entries by Jeremy Bowen:

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