Across the great steel divide
She lay in my arms. Just weeks old, a tiny baby. Her Palestinian father had just handed her to me at the infernal steel border building at the exit of Gaza into Israel. She did not cry. She just looked at me with her beady, dark eyes.
Her father was trying both to open her pram and to steady his wounded wife in her wheelchair. Their luggage was scattered at the final entry gate as if just thrown through it.
We shared no common language; it had just seemed inevitable that as the only other able-bodied human in this absurd transit room, I should care for the baby.
I know not their story, nor how, alone seemingly, they were the only Palestinians, in that brief half-hour of Israeli aerial ceasefire, to have been allowed across. But holding this baby connected me again to the wards full of small children so brutally smashed by this odious war.
It also connected me to the ever-present reality that the average age in Gaza is 17 and that a quarter of a million are children who, like the babe in my arms, are young children.
I could see the young Israeli IDF [Israel Defence Force] guards peering at me through the steel room’s bulletproof glass. They were the same women who, from another glass window, had barked commands at me though a very public address system.
“Feet apart!” they said. “Turn! No, not that way – the other!”
Soaked in sweat
Then, in the next of five steel security rooms I passed through – each with a red or green light to tell me to stop or go – a male security guard up in the same complex above me shouted: “Take your shirt off – right off. Now throw it on the floor … Pick it up, now wring it like it was wet.” It was wet, soaked in sweat.
From entering the steel complex until I reached the final steel clearing room where I held the baby, I was never spoken to face to face, nor did I see another human beyond those who barked commands through the bulletproof windows high above me.
Finally, even a little reluctantly, I handed my little bundle of humanity back to her father. At that point, the nicest of Israelis, a British-born captain, greeted me by name and then moved straight to the aid of the arriving Palestinians.
My own bags came through, my lightweight laptop lying askew with the screen open on top of them. The people behind the glass had had it for half an hour. While I waited for my camera crew and waved goodbye to my Palestinian family, I pressed the laptop on.
There was my familiar screensaver, but it was suddenly imposed over by a sequence of pretty black and yellow tartan-like barcodes, and a wide top-to-bottom stripe of white, edged with vertical coloured lines.
When I remonstrated later with the senior Israeli military public relations officer, he didn’t deny that “they” had probably done it.
He added: “You never know, it may all go away.” It hasn’t.
Nor has Gaza’s agony, which deepened with the attack on the United Nations school as I was crossing.
I feel guilty leaving, and for the first time in my reporting life, scarred, deeply scarred by what I have seen, some of it too terrible to put on the screen.
A few miles away It is accentuated by suddenly being in sumptuously appointed Israel, accentuated by the absence of anything that indicates that this bloody war rages a few miles away, a war that the UN stated last week has reduced 55% of Gaza’s diminutive land to a no-go area.
Go tell that to the children playing in the dusty streets or the families forced out of shelters such as the UN school compound to forage for food beneath shells and missiles.
In and out of an Israeli transit hotel for a few hours in Ashkelon, an hour from the steel crossing-point from Gaza, there were three half-hearted air raid warnings. Some people run, but most just get on with what they are doing.
They are relatively safe today, because Israel is the most heavily fortified country on Earth. The brilliant Israeli-invented, American-financed shield is all but foolproof; the border fortifications, the intelligence, beyond anything else in the rest of the world.
This brilliant people is devoting itself to a permanent and ever-intensifying expenditure to secure a circumstance in which there will never be a deal with the Palestinians. That’s what it looks like; that’s what you see. It may not be true.
The pressure not to go on this way is both internationally and domestically a minority pursuit.
Leaving Israel and beleaguered Gaza far below me, I lay back in my British Airways seat and headed for London. I donned my headphones and listened to Bach’s heavenly violin concerto in E major, and wept, as I rarely have as an adult.
I wept for two peoples with remarkable similarities: two peoples of extraordinary gifts and ability: two peoples living in an area far smaller than England, one of which besieges the other, both of which target each other’s civilians.
This is humankind’s most grievous cancer. Its cells infect conflicts in every corner of the world. We fail as humankind if we do not devise a coming-together. Our leaders, as a vast priority, have to try and try again to use every mechanism in our rare animal capacity – our considerable intellects – to bring these peoples to resolution, whatever the cost.
Jon Snow is anchor for Channel Four News in the United Kingdom