My Week: Alastair MacDonald

Another week of extremes in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as suicide bombings follow Iraq’s football victory and Tony Blair arrives on the scene

Monday 23 July

Tony Blair starts his new job in the Middle East today, on what we’re headlining ‘Mission Impossible”. Before he arrives I’m rushing to catch up with the rest of a region which, unlike me, starts its working week on Sunday.

First off, the rather alarming sight of a dozen army uniforms in the newsroom – new young conscripts from the press desk. They listen politely as we explain how we coordinate 70-odd Israeli, Palestinian and foreign text, TV and photo journalists.

Relations with the army can be edgy but critical, not just for news but for security. It’s a thought always uppermost in my mind, especially so just now: two friends from Baghdad were killed there on 12 July. It took to six the number of Reuters journalists killed by American fire in Iraq.

I talk it over with a thoughtful man in London. Reuters is ever more attentive to the mental effects of violence and stress on journalists. It’s hard to say if counselling helps. But it’s good to talk. Tony Blair clearly feels otherwise: by the end of the day, he’s said precisely nothing.

So an otherwise quiet news day; violence in Gaza and my colleague Adam breaks news of a new Israel negotiating position. Best news is that Shams and Nidal, stakhanovite stars of our Gaza bureau, get their first permits to enter Israel since Hamas took over there six weeks ago.

Tuesday 24 July

Tony Blair speaks! I’m in Ramallah, doorstepping his talks with Palestinian leaders. One of the best bits for me about this new job after Baghdad is simply getting out and heading to the story. Blair senses a ‘moment of opportunity’for peace.

I write it up, then drinks at the King David with a Blair aide before dinner with colleagues – we find common ground between Jews and Arabs… on circumcision.

Wednesday 25 July

Tony Blair flies out. Arab envoys fly in. More peace talk. Lunch in Ramallah with Gaza and West Bank colleagues, to coordinate a file from the Palestinian territories, now deeply divided since the Hamas-Fatah war.

Some good news from Iraq: the football team makes it to the Asian Cup final. Cue jubilant calls with Baghdad. And more suicide bombings.

Thursday 26 July

Fatah’s security chief quits over the rout in Gaza. We’re first with the news. At 8pm our Ramallah correspondent, Wafa, phones: we have an interview with president Mahmoud Abbas. In half an hour. Thinking unflattering thoughts about the legacy of underground politics on the diary habits of Palestinian leaders,

I make it to the West Bank border only to hit solid traffic. A call to the army press desk and I thank my stars for being polite to Monday’s recruits – one of them is on duty and talks us through the fast lane. We’re still an hour late but Abbas is courteous. Most we’ve heard before, but a nugget of news tops regional headlines: he’s changing election rules to make it hard for Hamas.

Friday 27 July

Mohammed in Ramallah is chasing a tip that the new government there has dropped ‘armed resistance’from its platform. Even our senior correspondent, who has seen it all before, mutters something mildly positive. But it quickly turns out that the wording change is not so new.

Four months into this job, I’m realising – as Tony Blair surely does – that nothing is ever that simple here.

Saturday 28 July

My own weekend and a chance to enjoy the Sabbath silence. It’s baking hot and a man passes my window in a king-size fur hat. He seems happy. I run through the empty park that straddles the Green Line between Arab East and Jewish West.

Sunday 29 July

Into Gaza. Since the BBC’s Alan Johnston was released, we’ve felt freed of the curse of kidnapping. Admin at the bureau and then a wander to see how Hamas, the Islamists, are running the place. We see young prisoners and a haul of drugs – some marijuana and kosher Israeli vodka, both banned.

Then it’s the Iraq vs Saudi Arabia match on TV and, to rejoicing among fellow veterans of reporting there, Iraq is the champion. For once, Reuters’ ethical balance tips: today we are all Iraqis.

Driving back through the donkey-cart traffic to the joys of strip searches at the border, we pass where one of our photographers was wounded by an Israeli tank shell. The highs and lows of working in this region are everpresent.

But today the news from Baghdad is good. Namir and Saeed should have lived to see this day. But football has, finally, put a smile on the faces of their friends.

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