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Tanks for the memories

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It was rush hour in Gaza and the tanks were bumper-to-bumper.

I won't bother blogging about the current conflict in Gaza. The topic is so divisive that no matter what I write, it would be perceived as too this, or too that.

Instead, I'll tell you about the first time I went to Gaza -- in the fall of 2002, as a correspondent for CNN. It was another time of tension between Israelis and Palestinians, back when Israel still occupied the Gaza Strip and before Hamas took it over.

Late one afternoon, we were traveling back from an interview. We had a driver and interpreter. The cameraman was Adil Bradlow, and a still photographer friend of his from South Africa joined us.

It was rush hour and the two-lane highway outside Gaza City was heavy with small cars and commercial vehicles. Not all of Gaza is dense urban sprawl; there are open areas of land, and we were in one such place.

Suddenly, a hulking Merkava tank -- the main battle tank of the Israeli Defense Forces -- swerved across the road. Its large cannon swiveled on its turret like the head of a beast, as the body belched a huge cloud of white smoke.

Now, in many parts of the world, this would have brought traffic to a standstill. Not Gaza. It was clear that drivers were accustomed to this, and it surprised me how nimbly they maneuvered around the tank, risking a crushing death if they misjudged the spinning treads that ground up the asphalt along with the dirt.

Another tank immediately followed in its wake, and as we looked in the direction from where they came, we could see a whole line of Israeli armor moving in formation. There was no firing and no clear indication of what the Israelis were up to. But that didn't stop us from demanding that the driver pull over so we could get out and film.

I had been in enough conflict zones by then to know that you don't approach a military convoy on the move, even if you only hold a camera or notebook. It's a good way to get run over or shot. So Adil set his camera up on a tripod and filmed the procession from 100 yards away.

It was then we noted the tank closest to us. It was particularly loud and releasing a lot of smoke. It lurched forward, then back...I recognized the motion. It was stuck and trying to free itself from the soft sand. By now, the rest of the convoy had pushed on ahead. The Israeli tank and the crew inside were suddenly alone and vulnerable, and the crowd of Palestinian drivers halted nearby knew it.

As the tank continued to try and free itself, Adil -- who has spent a lot of time in Gaza -- decided this was the perfect opportunity to get a really close-up shot of an Israeli tank. So he took his camera off the sticks, put it on his shoulder and marched in the direction of the stuck Merkava. I had just the opposite thought, and felt this was probably a good time to move away from the disabled tank, retreating behind the corner of a nearby abandoned gas station -- hardly any shelter from the Merkava's 120mm gun, but I felt safer.

Adil continued to advance, and it wasn't long before the tank took notice, swinging its turret and lowering its barrel to meet him head on.

Adil didn't flinch. In other wars, I have seen a camera person shot for far less. Adil just kept moving closer.

Suddenly, the hatch of the tank flopped open and the commander rose up with an M-16 rifle, firing it into the air. Others who had been emboldened by Adil's lead quickly scampered back...but not him. I tried shouting to him to get back, but Adil couldn't hear anything above the roar of the tank's laboring engine. Having made his point, the tank commander dropped back inside.

The standoff continued until finally another Israeli tank returned and pushed the stuck Merkava out the hole it had sunk into.

I always thought Adil was kind of dumb -- after all, he could have just zoomed in from a distance to get his close-up shot.

But to Adil, it wasn't about the shot at all but rather about the message he wanted to send: That he wasn't intimidated by the power of the tank.