The sweat trickled down my back. I was pulling a cart full of television gear and flak jackets, had a heavy rucksack on my back with my laptop and a jumble of cables inside, and a camera and two helmets in my free hand. Most of the sweat came from the intense heat, the clinging humidity and the exertion, but part of it from a tinge of tension. We were passing through the Erez crossing, from Israel into Gaza.
I hadn’t been there since January. The kidnapping of the BBC’s Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston on 12 March had made the strip a no-go zone. That had kept us away, plus the vicious rounds of factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah, during which it was virtually impossible to report from Gaza in a meaningful way.
But Hamas’s stunning victory in the final round of fighting, which ended on 15 June, had changed everything. Fatah had been roundly defeated, and my sources in Gaza told me we could return.
On the Israeli side of the crossing, we had a bit of a wait, for reasons that weren’t altogether clear – they rarely are. The scene once we passed through the final gate was surreal.
Around a hundred people, mostly young men with a smattering of women and children, were huddled by the sides of the concrete corridor. There was a strong stench of sweat, urine, human excrement and rubbish. The people were mostly members of the defeated Fatah security services and their families, desperate to get out of Gaza.
When our cameraman Adil Bradlow raised his camera to capture the scene, many of the young men shouted for him not to film. Others covered their heads. But a few did speak with us, and let us film them, and told us Hamas was rounding up Fatah members and killing them.
The usual Palestinian security forces who manned the crossing had abandoned their posts. I was reminded of Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. All semblance of authority had vanished. Everything was for the taking.
Once we passed through the first checkpoint manned by Hamas gunmen, the atmosphere changed. There was order. And the deeper we went into Gaza City, I was struck by how calm the place was. There weren’t as many cars and people about as usual, but I could hear no gunfire, and some stores were open.
Alan Johnston, who I’ve known since he moved to Gaza three years ago, is believed to be held by the Daghmoush family, a powerful Gaza clan notorious for its criminal activities. Hamas has issued a string of deadlines for his release. So far, all those deadlines have passed.
Sources tell me the Daghmoush want guarantees that, if they release Alan, they will not be harmed. Hamas has promised not to punish them, but they don’t trust Hamas, and so continue to keep him.
Not surprisingly, almost every regime in the Arab world is terrified by what happened in Gaza, and is scrambling to do whatever they can to shore up the bruised and battered leadership of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. They see themselves in Mahmoud Abbas, and know that the forces that bolster them could, if faced by a determined and well-armed Islamic opposition, crumble just as easily.