Monday, 2 March 2009

Gaza diary

I'm at Tel Aviv airport, on the way out of Israel after a flying visit to Gaza with Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for International Development and Paisley and Renfrewshire South MP. It was fascinating, if not a bit grim. You can read my reports in the Herald. Here's an extended diary I kept of the trip.

Sat 9.00pm

If you think journalism is glamorous try hanging out in Heathrow’s terminal 5 on a Saturday night. The bar is closing as I order a beer and meet with Douglas Alexander’s chief press officer. He gently breaks the news that the International Development Minister will be gazzumped into Gaza by Tony Blair, who will be there tomorrow morning before we enter the Palestinian Territory. The Minister appears and takes the news with a shrug of the shoulders.


The STUC delegation has found the last bar in Terminal 5 and it shuts as I arrive. Coincidentally, the trade unions are sending a delegation to Israel for the week to evaluate the prospect of a boycott of Israeli goods. It’s a tricky one, a boycott means that Israeli trade unionists, quite likely to oppose aggression, will lose jobs.

One of the comrades has an image on his computer of the late Yasser Arafat holding a Glasgow Rangers scarf aloft. The blue scarf bears the slogan, borrowed from another intractable conflict, “No surrender”. I didn’t know Arafat was a Hun.

10.30pm - Flight
. Sleep, going to need it

Sunday 5.30am
Tel Aviv

Clear customs at Tel Aviv airport through a special channel. Coming back out, with a Gaza border stamp and no government Minister, won’t be so easy the British officials warn me. More bad news on the publicity front -the STUC delegation make it to page 6 of the Jerusalem Post, no mention of the DIFD visit. Just can’t get the staff, jokes the Minister.

Sheets of blue lightning outline the high rises of Tel Aviv as we drive through a thunderstorm into the city to the British Ambassador's residence. To bed as the thunderclaps explode overhead.

9.00am Sunday Ambassador's residence

Breakfast on the terrace, sheltered from the rain, with the ambassador’s wife, her French goddaughter and new husband while the Minister is briefed inside. I join them for the Oxfam briefing and a presentation by an advocacy agency that challenges the Israeli government in court over the border restrictions.

Killer facts, as they say in all these briefing documents are: about one million more litres of diesel are required each month to restore electricity, no construction materials are allowed in; pasta was only allowed in after a four day argument and Hilary Clinton’s intervention .

Some 50,000 people have no access to water. Mike Bailey of Oxfam says it costs them $3 million extra a month to transport food to the southern entrances to Gaza which they are allowed to use. Annually this would provide food aid for a one third of the population.

10.00 am Speed off to the border in a fast car with a flashing blue light driven by a charming, Hebrew-speaking, ex-IDF driver. Past palm trees, nuclear power stations, pylons, not beautiful scenery, and remember that every inch of this land is, for someone, disputed territory.

11.45am Mordekhay petrol station. A name I last heard from Old Testament readings in church. This is where we have a quick coffee and swap cars and drivers. We get into armoured Mercedes jeeps, doors as heavy as stoveplates and windows that do not wind down. Our British Embassy driver has only been here one week and, like a character out of Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop”, he cheerily admits he doesn’t have a clue yet. Pretty soon we see the grim, concrete security wall that marks the border.

12.30 am. Erez border crossing. Empty, cavernous, and not very friendly border guards. It takes all day to do move anything. Waiting for one politician to come one way - Douglas Alexander is behind us - and another, Tony Blair, to come the other way. News reaches us that about 50 journalists are trailing Blair. Oh, great.

Both politicians turn up at once. Blair and Alexander exchange pleasantries and body guards. Blair’s staffer is an ex-Labour press officer so I get a few words with the heavily scented Middle East envoy. He’s all charm and does that thing were he remembers you from the last time. How can he?

Blair says he’s been appalled by the damage he’d seen. “The dangers of this kind of thing happening again are fairly large unless we get the politics right, “ he tells me. “That’s why we have to get the blockade lifted and we get a stable basis for peace here. Otherwise its going to be harder all round.”

Mr Blair heading to the donors conference in Egypt where western powers will pledge billions more funding for the reconstruction. In a parallel move the Egyptian government is nudging Hamas, who run Gaza,and Fatah, the party of the Palestinian Authority, into unity talks.

1.00pm Palestinian border point

We pick up another driver, Jamal, who is from Gaza so knows his way around. Through the Palestinian Authority checkpoint and then through the Hamas checkpoint. Then through a wasteland of rutted roads where all the buildings have been flattened

1.10pm - driving through concrete campsite that is Jabalia refugee camp. Jamal grew up there. Most of the people now blame Hamas for the latest Israeli violence, he says.

1.15pm Izbet Abed Rabo village.

Gaza Khaled Abed still loiters in the pile of rubble that used to be his house in the village of Rabo. A phalanx of cameras and reporters have joined us by now.

Mr Abed was not involved in any resistance in what was a peaceful Palestinian village only three kilometres from the border “We are not Hamas so we stayed at our house when the invasion started. There was no resistance in this area, so the IDF knows we are peaceful people,” Mr Abed tells Douglas Alexander, standing in the muddy ruins.

On the fourth day of the invasion, just after midday, three Israeli tanks drew up outside his house. The Abed family came out waving white flags and a soldier started firing.

Through a translator Khaled Abed takes up the story of the shooting of his family: “My daughter, two years old, her abdomen came out. My daughter seven years old was badly hit in the chest. My four year old daughter, she is paralysed and is under treatment in Belgium now. My wife was shot in the arm she was holding the flag with and twice in the abdomen,” says Mr Abed.

“I have a child who is seven years old,” says Mr Alexander as he walks away from the wrecked village. “You can see the television pictures, you can read the reports, of course I have received briefings from officials but little prepares you for the stories of human suffering and the physical destruction.”

1.30pm - A rainstorm puts paid to a survey of a destroyed ice cream factory. The meeting with businessmen is re-scheduled for the UN compound later. These entrepreneurs, who trade with Israel, who would have been seen as collaborators by Hamas, had to watch the IDF destroy their businesses in the last days of the conflict. It seems senseless but economic, as well as political and military strangulation seems to be the Israeli policy.

In a sharp five minute meeting with the International Development Secretary the businessmen ask that he presses for the border to be open for trade again. Trade is a win-win for all sides say the businessmen.

The UN, and western donors, are just as keen that trade, which doesn’t discriminate and forces people to look beyond their own borders , is established as soon as possible. Without business the mosque becomes the whole focus of social life and into the vacuum of hopelessness steps extremism.

-driving into Gaza.
Hole in the wall shops sell anything from sweets to mobile generators. Posters on the walls show men with guns. They are election posters not wanted posters. There are few cars or people on the streets, groups of idle men on corners. We spot a few fruit and veg stalls, so some food is getting in.

2.00pm UNRWA, relief and works agency, compound.

We troop into the calm civility of the UN. There is an “In the thick of it” moment as we all follow the Minister through the complex, up a flight of stairs, through an office and to the toilet. We all reverse.

2.10pm Meeting with the businessmen and a little sweet tea. Nice.

2.15pm John Ging, one of these lucid, passionate Irishmen that seem to populate the upper echelons of the UN and other aid agencies, takes Douglas Alexander on a tour of the UN complex.

The storehouses, with $10 million of aid, were shelled by the IDF. The UN staff had to run from cover to drive lorries away from shrapnel and phosphorus shells.

“Ten shells in there and three there in a two hour period,” say Ging pointing to the charred remains of the warehouse. He wants justice too. “It shouldn’t just be accountability for the UN, it should be for mothers and fathers who have lost their children,” he tells me. “They have to be guided to a mechanism that delivers them justice otherwise the rhetoric of the extremists prevails, which is there is no justice in the rule of law join us in the rule of the gun.”

2.30pm - Douglas Alexander does a press conference for the local media. The BBC and Sky had grabbed him earlier in the day and we all know Blair will top the story.

- Sit down interview with Minister as we speed back to the border. He re-emphasises the points he’s been making all day - the borders must open, aid must get in. He’s on his way to tell this to the Israeli Social Affairs Minister he’ll see next. Mr Alexander said Britain would work with trusted partners to deliver aid. No Western power will deal with Hamas, the Islamist party that seized power in Gaza after winning elections and violent street battles with rival party Fatah. It is still pledged to destroy the Israeli state. As we talk Oxfam lorries, funded by the UK, are delivering clean water to some of the 50,000 Gazans who do not have access to even a standpipe.

He's staggered by the "pasta war" - it took four days to get the foodstuff approved by the Israelis - and the fact that the UN can't get paint and paper in as counselling tools for children in the UN schools leaves him dismayed. "You can't make rockets from poster paint," he says.

Still, there is no here is no political capital for Israeli ministers in easing border restrictions that currently keep Gaza hovering just above a humanitarian crisis. Vilified abroad, Israeli politicians know they have to maintain a strict security regime to get a hearing from their electorate.

Nor is there any sign of their belligerent enemy, Hamas, embracing peace, despite reports that the organisation tried to open channels to the Israeli government in the run-up to the December conflict. After this he’s off to Afghanistan, which can’t be any less disheartening than the situation here.

3.15pm - Waved through the Palestinian checkpoint and drive to the Israeli side of the border only to be sent back, they aren’t ready for us. I think the close protection codeword for this is “ar**ing around”.

News comes through of an incident, a rocket attack from Gaza. Back through the Israeli checkpoint, sniffer dogs, passport check three times, machine guns, concrete bollards, out.

- Mordekhay petrol station. The rocket landed over there, just beyond the tall tree in the field, the waiting British staffers tell us casually. “We’re used to it,” says the driver as we speed north.

4.55pm - Back in Tel Aviv, the beautiful coastal city. A different world, I realise I'm kind of depressed.

1 comment:

  1. And I thought I'd had a bad day!