Thursday 1 January 2009
A new year, but the conflict which has dominated world events for the past 60 years goes on with the same intensity and bitterness. It's a bad start to the day when our attempts to film Israeli tanks close to the Erez border crossing are blocked again by Israeli police. They are polite but insistent – this is a closed military area and we have to go.
So we head to a point on the main road, close to a place signposted 'Armistice House'. This was a place used for meetings between Israelis and Egyptians to discuss a ceasefire after the war in 1948. Here we can see Gaza in the distance. And throughout the day explosions cut through the air and huge plumes of smoke follow.
At one point a grey streak of smoke shoots upwards – a missile fired out of Gaza, heading towards Be'er Sheva. Within two minutes, from the spot where the trail appeared to start, there's an explosion and a huge ball of smoke as the Israelis strike back immediately.
Throughout the afternoon, there is a series of loud explosions after a number of attacks from the air. It's thought that the Israelis are targeting the minefields and booby traps laid by the Palestinians, literally preparing the ground for a land offensive. It's a gamble and the international community has a very small window to forge a deal which will stop it happening.
Friday 2 January 2009
Just before 8am the sirens suddenly sound at our hotel in Ashkelon. Two loud droning noises followed by a voice in Hebrew then in English – 'Will all guests please make their way to a secure place'. Rockets from Gaza are on their way. Within seconds there are two loud explosions. Ashkelon is the target. I'm told seven have landed in the city. There is some damage to one house and minor scratches to one resident. It's a reminder of how notoriously inaccurate these rockets are, and how they are indiscriminate in their targeting.
As a matter of curiosity I go to check out the secure room on my floor. It is essentially a windowless conference room with chairs arranged around makeshift tables and a steel ladder which leads to the floor above. It provides more than adequate protection because the chances of a direct strike are so small.
Kissufim is a border crossing between Israel and Gaza. It's deserted. As we drive towards it, it's eerie just how quiet it is. As I stand looking into Gaza, the silence is broken by the call to Friday prayer carried in the wind. It's suddenly drowned out by three loud explosions to my right, somewhere in the distance. As I try to find out what has been hit, another three echo around the area. Suddenly the drone of aircraft is also noticeable as Israeli spotter aircraft do their job in the skies above me. I walk past the yellow permanent roadblocks and make my way to the border. It's marked by a fence which is possibly electrified and heavy concrete blocks. This is the very edge of Israel.
Our presence is suddenly the subject of attention from the Israeli army. Three vehicles surround us and ask what we're doing. We explain and they insist we hand over the tapes. Our local producer, Yossi, tries to tell them we have nothing that shows the army, but we're reminded that we are filming in a closed military zone and co-operation is not optional. They take our camera.
I’m writing this in the back of our car. We've asked the soldiers to refer the matter higher, and they’ve agreed. I suspect we've lost our morning's work. Our encounter on the border is perhaps an example of how edgy everyone is. If a ground assault is to go ahead, and all the signs are that it is, it's going to happen in the next 48 to 72 hours.
Later that day
We're detained by the Israeli army while filming close to the border with Gaza. They tell us that we are in a closed military area despite having passed two police patrols on the way there. The army holds us for four hours before passing us into police custody. Our vehicle is ordered to follow the police to the base at Ofa Kim. I'm taken into a small room where I'm questioned by a detective, who shows me a notice in Hebrew which he says is an order stopping unauthorised people entering the area where we were detained. I point out I don't read Hebrew. He then asks several questions which results in the same answer: 'I don't read Hebrew'.
I have discovered that another news team had been in the area yesterday and I point this out. I tell the police that they aired footage from the so-called closed area and wonder why it is just an Al Jazeera team which has run into problems when there are hundreds of journalists doing what we’ve just done. The bespectacled shaven-headed officer has the decency to look slightly uncomfortable before insisting our detention is nothing to do with who we work for. My cameraman is offered coffee. I'm asked if I want anything and request 'our tapes and to leave'. There is no smile. I'm told that we can't leave. We have to be 'processed' which sounds ominous.
After two hours with the police an army team show up to view the material we have filmed. They tell us that we can't have the discs back as they show something that is restricted. I ask what, and the young male officer is about to answer when he realises what he's about to do and says he can't say. Almost.
I'm then asked to sign a statement in Hebrew which will release me on bail. I tell the clerk that I don't read Hebrew so our producer is called who checks over the wording and nods. I'm agreeing to stay out of the closed military zone. I sign to end this seven-hour drag of pain and inconvenience. The soldiers and police have been professional rather than friendly, but we've lost a whole day.
My producer smiles at me as we get into the car. 'They are embarrassed. We should never have gotten so far.' It doesn't make me feel any better.
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