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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 August 2005, 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK
Stephen Sackur's return to Gaza
In the run up to Israel's historic pullout from Gaza, Stephen Sackur travelled to the region.

In his diary he discusses the changes he has experienced in a country he left in 1997.

For two and a half years, til the summer of 1997 Israel was my home. The place where my wife and I raised our first child, where we saw hopes of Middle East peace rise and fall. And now I'm back, no longer a BBC news correspondent, chasing the bombs and the buzz, but presenter of Hardtalk - in pursuit of interviews that will illuminate the enduring conflict in the Middle East.

Stephen was the BBC's Middle East Correspondent until 1997

Which isn't to say that working for Hardtalk is a dignified procession from one politician's office to another. Within minutes of landing at Ben Gurion airport I'm in the back of a taxi listening to the local news on the radio: Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has just resigned from Prime minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet in protest over the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

This news has ramifications...in the ensuing political chaos our hopes of an interview with Netanyahu are kyboshed, so too our bid for the man who will succeed him as Finance minister, Ehud Olmert. In fact as I stare out of the window at the parched hills north-west of Jerusalem I realise we've actually arrived in Israel with no interviews fixed at all....

You've been away a long time

More on that in a moment, but first, by way of a diversion, let me explain how lost this particular former-Jerusalem resident felt on the drive into the city. In the old days we always headed down route 1, the narrow road past the Latrun monastery which was loaded with reminders of past battles between Arab and Jew. To the side of the road in the pine forests west of the city you would see the remains of wrecked military vehicles and artillery pieces, preserved as a memorial to those Jews who fought and fell during the desperate battles to keep the road to Jerusalem open during the war of 1948.

But on this journey, there's no sign of that familiar and usually heavily congested old road. Instead we take a wide and characterless highway to the north-west; and soon I realise that we are no longer within the borders of '48-Israel' but speeding through occupied land, with Arab villages to both right and left. I ask the driver to explain. He chuckles. 'You've been away a long time' he says. All over Israel and the West Bank new roads have been carved out of the rock.

I truly don't believe I am leaving this place. My country will not let it happen
Anita Tucker

In this country roads are politics, the Israeli Government has created a new reality with tar macadam. So I enter Jerusalem through a stretch of highway walled on either side, to protect Israeli commuters from stones thrown by local Palestinian youths.

What the Israelis call 'Greater Jerusalem' sits at the heart of a new highway network which connects the city to Jewish settlement blocs north and south, while by-passing the Arab towns and villages in between.

Anita Tucker

But even ''facts on the ground' can be torn down if the political winds blow in a new direction. And for proof look no further than the Gaza Strip. We want Hardtalk to get to grips with the sentiment of the Jewish settlers in Gaza on the eve of the Israeli withdrawal. So we visit Anita Tucker, one of the founders of the Nezer Hazani settlement in the bloc known as Gush Katif. Anita takes us to her hot-house complex - where she grows celery on an industrial scale using cutting edge technology.

A collection of Asian and Palestinian labourers are cutting and packing her prized stalks. 'I'm still planting', she tells me. 'I truly don't believe I am leaving this place. My country will not let it happen'. Well, by the time of this writing Anita may well be gone.

Ariel Sharon, long-time champion of the settler cause has made an irreversible decision to get out of the Gaza strip. Not the result of negotiation, but simple self-interested calculation. Israel, Sharon believes, cannot maintain a settler presence in Gaza and a military occupation, without unacceptable long-term consequences in terms of demography, democracy and relations with the United States.

Shimon Peres

Back in Jerusalem the lure of Hardtalk proves irresistible to a fine cast of characters, never mind the government re-shuffle. We talk to Shimon Peres, whose incorrigible optimism is still intact. The Gaza pull-out, he claims, is a step back onto the path to peace laid out in the Oslo Accords. Not a sentiment that Ariel Sharon would share; nonetheless Peres and Sharon have a fascinating and complicated working rapport. 'I'll support Sharon as long as I believe he is furthering the cause of peace' says the eighty-two year old deputy prime-minister.

Ghassan Khatib

Less optimism from the Palestinian side. Ghassan Khatib, minister of Planning in the Palestinian Authority is clearly determined not to be seen to celebrate an Israeli pull-back which leaves the occupation of the West Bank intact, the issue of Jerusalem as intractable as ever.

Eival Giladi

But most rewarding is our interview with a new face on Hardtalk, retired Brigadier-General Eival Giladi, the man who masterminded the Gaza disengagement, Mr Sharon's key advisor on strategic planning. Giladi speaks with passion and conviction about the 'window of opportunity' presented by the Gaza pull-out. If the Palestinians can deliver - by which he means reining in the militants and establishing order and stability in Gaza - 'this is very definitely not the end but the beginning'.

But there's another message from this new voice at the heart of Israel's long-term planning: painstaking negotiations a la Oslo are dead. From now on Israel will act unilaterally and demand cooperation from the Palestinians. Can such an approach deliver peace? Hardtalk will be testing the Sharon strategy in the coming months...

For me though time in Israel is short, because I have another overseas assignment - in Pakistan. So begins an epic journey back to London, a brief reunion with family and then on to Islamabad....


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