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Bowen diary: Crossing borders

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

Ambulances line up at the Rafah crossing point on Egypt's border with Gaza. Photo: 18 January 2009
Ambulances with the wounded have been streaming out of the Gaza Strip

19 January

A very late diary entry today, because I have been travelling.

I am with a team trying to get into Gaza through Egypt. I am standing at the border... The Egyptian intelligence people are deciding.

Around a dozen ambulances have come from Gaza. Some accelerated away with their lights flashing and sirens wailing.

Some goods are going in. Not far from here are the tunnels which Israel says are used for arms smuggling, and which they bombed very severely.

Tunnels have been there for years. But they expanded exponentially after Israel imposed the blockade of Gaza after Hamas took over in the summer of 2007.

Gazans relied on the tunnels for food and other essentials, and even a few luxuries. They were so well-known that people put up big white marquees on the Gaza side to cover the tunnel entrances. No-one tried to hide them.

I suspect that not much fuss was made by Israel and Western countries because the non-military goods coming in from Egypt did much to keep Gaza's civilians going.

A mile or so to the right as I face the border, is a bright white searchlight. It marks the Israeli border with Egypt. I was down on the other side of that border last week.

From the Israeli side it's less than two hours to Jerusalem. But to get here today I flew from Tel Aviv to Cairo, then drove five hours across the desert. Crossing borders is never easy in the Middle East. You get used to taking the roundabout route.

And the slow lane. We've been told to try crossing to Gaza again in the morning.

18 January
A group of people stand on a balcony by a destroyed mosque in Beit Lahiya
Gaza is starting to open up to international journalists

So now we have two unilateral ceasefires. Hamas added theirs to Israel's. Both sides say they are doing it without reference to the other.

But they are linked, very strongly, because they fight each other and are neighbours.

It is still shaky, but after the Hamas declaration and given a few quiet days, it will start to feel like the real thing. I don't think either side wants another round just yet.

I had a long chat with a friend in Gaza last night. He was very depressed about the future. His main fear was not that there wouldn't be a Palestinian state - it can rarely have seemed so far away.

His worries were much more immediate - that the bombing would start again, and about law and order in Gaza.

Gaza was bordering on anarchic in the year or so before Hamas used force to remove its rivals from Fatah in the summer of 2007. Shoot-outs in the streets were common.

About that time I was staying in a hotel on the seafront in Gaza City. We had been working hard, and had a few hours off one afternoon, so I went for a snooze in my hotel room.

A wedding hall stands next door to the hotel. Palestinians have an unfortunate custom of shooting in the air at weddings, something I have never liked ever since I heard that bullets come down just as fast as they go up.

So when I was half roused by gunfire I put it down to a wedding. Then I was woken again by one of the hotel staff advising me to stay in my room. Naturally, I went down to the foyer to see what was happening.

A cleaner was mopping up a big pool of blood. Someone had been wounded, not too seriously, and had crawled into the hotel. Outside Hamas men with guns, beards and black uniforms had taken up positions and were firing sporadically down the road.

Once Hamas took over, they sorted out the streets. It was not pleasant for their rivals. People died. Some followers of Siad Siyam, the interior minister killed by the Israelis a few days ago in an air strike, had a reputation for violence and torture.

Gazans appreciated the calm, except those who fell foul of the Hamas security services. For foreigners in Gaza, mainly journalists and aid workers, life became a little easier under Hamas.

The kidnap threat receded. One very senior aid worker asked me the other night: "Who's going to look after us in Gaza if there's chaos again?"

The war over the last three weeks has been the result of a collective failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Attempts at peace-making have not worked. The big issues have not been grasped hard enough. This is not a problem that can heal itself, and it has been left to fester.

Let's hope the bloodletting over the last three weeks will concentrate the minds of Arabs, Israelis and all those who call themselves their friends.

The Israelis let some journalists into Gaza today, and so have the Egyptians. Gaza is starting to open up, though unfortunately not for me yet.


Previous diary entries by Jeremy Bowen:



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