The first set of gates slammed shut, controlled by anonymous operators watching us on CCTV. There was an ominous silence. We were in no manâ€™s land, caught between two countries.
Forty-foot high concrete walls surrounded us, imposing and menacing. Eventually the next row of metallic doors clanged open and we dragged our gear into Gaza. The Erez crossing is the main crossing point between Israel and Palestinian-controlled Gaza. Itâ€™s a heavily fortified tunnel with Israeli troops at one end and Palestinian security forces at the other. The kilometre that lies in between is empty except for Security cameras and a couple of porters who lay propped against the security barrier smoking cigarettes and trying to sleep.
We were carrying a lot of gear: Video camera, lighting, and laptop computers. Having spoken with colleagues before, I knew the going rate for a porter was 50 Shekels (about eight pounds), but the guys on the Palestinian side were keen to negotiate for more. â€œ200 Shekels sir . . . You speak Arabic sir? . . . 200 Shekelsâ€. I ignored him and we kept walking, he snapped at me in Arabic, rubbing his stomach and looking sad. After about a 500 metre walk, him moaning at me, and my colleagues trying to ignore him, we reached Palestinian passport control. It was everything Iâ€™d pictured â€“ a green painted shed and a rickety desk. A handful of soldiers relaxing, Ak47â€™s dangling by their sides, hand-rolled smokes hanging limply off bottom lips. â€œAsalam aleikumâ€, they smiled, the atmosphere relaxed almost jovial. There was no sense that these guys were the first line of defence in a nation coming under daily attack from Israeli artillery and tank incursions.
Trouble had flared in Gaza days earlier when an Israeli soldier had been captured by Palestinian militants who were now trying to use him as leverage for an exchange of prisoners. After months of relative calm the whole area was once again in the grip of violence. I, and the rest of my team, had been covering the story from the Office in Jerusalem but we decided we needed to be in Gaza, even if just for a short time, so that we could accurately reflect both sides of the conflict in our reports for BBC world.
Our fixer and driver were waiting for us after passport control. They were both local guys who knew the strip well and could organise anything at a momentâ€™s notice. Loading my kit into the back of the yellow mini bus I turned round to catch the tail end of an exchange between our fixer and the porter. I didnâ€™t need to be an Arabic speaker to understand the body language. Finally, defeated, our porter skulked away with his fifty shekels, grumbling to his colleagues and throwing me dirty looks.
Gaza is a place Iâ€™ve wondered about for a long time. As a journalist itâ€™s one of those crazy places that you feel you just have to see with your own eyes. To experience and maybe attempt to comprehend what life is like for Palestinians. It was the smell that I noticed first, a powerful, pungent aroma of donkey manure. It hits you hard and takes a while to get used to. It doesnâ€™t take long to realise why, donkeys with carts are the mainstay of the transport system, with whole families clinging to the back, possessions piled high. We passed through the Jabelya refugee camp; half-built buildings seemingly positioned on a whim, cracking and dirty. In between, the battered roads were lined with children playing, barefoot, in the dirt. Small stores selling clothes and grain were peppered amongst the buildings, projecting some form of normality. We had to negotiate our way around the chest high sand barricades, built as a pointless gesture of defiance, clearly incapable of even temporarily slowing Israelâ€™s mighty armoured fleet.
Our first stop was the Al Shifa Hospital, the Gaza stripâ€™s biggest. We were guided to the Neo natal unit to meet Dr Thabit al-Masri, a kindly looking physician with a pepperbox beard and glasses. He showed us around, the unit, which was built with foreign aid and has thirty incubators. For now they were running on backup power but with only intermittent electricity he was unsure how long these babies could be kept alive. As he spoke I concentrated on the viewfinder of my camera, zooming into the small, blue body of the nearest baby, a baby so ill he doubted it would survive much longer. Itâ€™s a strange sensation when you film something so heart rending, somehow your brain blocks it out and concentrates on the technicalities of composition, lighting and sound. Itâ€™s only afterwards when you have done your job and are on the way home that you realise the scale and sadness of what you have seen. I guess this is the best way, as Iâ€™m not a Doctor, not an aid worker. All I can do is endeavour to frame shots so powerfully that people sit up and take notice and ask â€œwhy?â€ Thatâ€™s the only practical way I can help.
Knowing we had some powerful images in the can we left for the Beach. Gaza beach is a pretty place – sun loungers and deck chairs line the shores, resting peacefully on the incredibly yellow sand. Thereâ€™s a lifeguard station and fishing boats. It can also be a dangerous spot: Days before, six members of one family had been killed when an Israeli naval vessel opened fire. Today it was quiet except for a group of lively Palestinian teenagers. They were swimming and wrestling in the sea, splashing each other and laughing. With the midday sun hammering down we filmed a walking interview with a Child Psychologist who explained the effect that the current situation was having on the local children. There were many cases of bed-wetting, nail biting and fear of being alone. As we finished, the local teenagers surrounded us, excited, smiling, and keen to shake my hand. They were speaking to me in rapid Arabic, laughing and patting my back. I smiled and shook their hands, warily keeping an eye on all my equipment. They were good kids but Gaza is probably the toughest place in the world to grow up, it wasnâ€™t inconceivable that they were after a memento that they could sell for a few shekels.
As the sun began its descent we left for the Ramatan TV studios in central Gaza. They have a live broadcasting position on the roof with an impressive view over Gaza City. After a live interview with Mustafa Barghouti, an independent member of the Palestinian legislative council, we headed back to the Jabelya refugee camp for our last piece of filming.
Ahmed Abdullah is the headmaster of the local school. Heâ€™s a friendly, aged man with a fair complexion and a round, welcoming face. When we arrived he was sitting with a group of friends underneath his apartment. They were drinking tea, clicking prayer beads, discussing life and trying to ignore the regular crump of artillery shells landing nearby. They soon welcomed us into the group and Ahmed told his story: He was sad; life had been hard on him. At sixty years of age he had never known peace, heâ€™d seen his family destroyed and his land taken. Now he was preparing to survive another onslaught. We filmed him introducing his neighbourhood, storing dried foods and stockpiling water. He told us how he dreamed of peace, how he doesnâ€™t care if his neighbours are Muslim or Jew; he just wanted his family to be safe and to be happy. I liked the guy and would have loved to sit with him longer, smoking a shisha and debating the world.
With the onset of dusk we waved goodbye and left once again for the Israeli border. I would have liked to stay but with programme commitments for that night we had to reach Jerusalem. As we reached the Erez crossing my heart sank. The porter that came to meet our vehicle was the same one that weâ€™d had earlier in the day. I had visions of having to carry all my own gear along the tunnel, destroying my back and delaying our journey by hours. Our eyes met and I laughed, so did he and without a pause he began piling my equipment onto his trolley.
Crossing back into Israel is incredibly difficult and time consuming. Upon reaching the first set of gates you have to wait patiently until the eighteen-year old conscript, watching you on CCTV, can be bothered to open them. You then have to decipher the instructions barked at you over loud speakers in heavily accented English. â€œGo through the gatesâ€ . . . â€œStopâ€ . . . â€œWaitâ€â€¦â€œGo through the next set of gates.â€ Eventually you reach the X-ray machines, but here the journey becomes even more complicated. I had to empty every item from my kit bags and place them individually on the conveyor, still this wasnâ€™t good enough and they kept being spewed back at me. â€œPut them further to the leftâ€ . . . â€œNo, move them back to the rightâ€ . . . â€œActually put them in the middle.â€ The whole procedure is surreal as at no point do you see or have the opportunity to speak with anybody, it is conducted purely by CCTV and loudspeakers drilled into the walls. Although I understand the necessity of the security arrangements, I was still struggling to stay calm and relaxed. Finally after over an hour and a half we passed into Israel.
It had been a sad but fascinating day; a day that reminded me why I do this job. As we drove back to Jerusalem the tiredness began to kick in and I thought of what weâ€™d seen and heard. The story of Ahmed Abdullah, the teenagers playing on the beach, the hopelessly inadequate barricades built across the street and the babies sick and dying in the al Shifa hospital. Itâ€™s a day Iâ€™ll never forget and one I donâ€™t want to.
The author at Ramatan TV Studios in Gaza City
Author – Christian Parkinson