There is, it seems, an unbridgeable gap between the western world's apparent recognition of the dangers of Palestinian suffering and its commitment to do anything whatever to stop it. This week the collective punishment of the people of Gaza reached a new level, as Israel began to choke off essential fuel supplies to its one and a half million people in retaliation for rockets fired by Palestinian resistance groups. A plan to cut power supplies has only been put on hold till the end of the week by the intervention of Israel's attorney general.
Both moves come on top of the existing blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel since last year's election of Hamas and the confiscation of hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes it is obliged to pass on as part of previous agreements. And instead of being restrained by the US or European Union, both have deepened the crisis by imposing their own sanctions and withdrawing aid. The result has, inevitably, been further huge increases in unemployment and poverty. But far from discouraging rocket attacks, they have risen sharply - though the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths has been running at more than 30 to one, compared with four to one at the height of the intifada five years ago.The UN's senior official in Gaza, Karen Koning-Abu Zayd, yesterday branded Israel's intensification of the Gaza siege as a violation of international law: despite its withdrawal two years ago, Israel continues to control all access to the Gaza Strip and remains the occupying power both legally and practically. Not that the situation is much better in the occupied West Bank. Despite the US and Israel's fatal backing for the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and his emergency government of a non-existent state, Israeli demolitions, land seizures, settlement expansion, assassinations, armed incursions, segregated road-building and construction of the land-grabbing separation wall continue apace in the territory where Abbas's nominal writ supposedly runs.
There are now 563 checkpoints in the West Bank, squeezing this already constricted piece of land into apartheid-style cantons, and making free movement or normal economic activity entirely impossible. All this is in contravention of international law; much of it directly violates UN security council resolutions, such as resolution 446 against Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. But, whereas the occupied people face sanctions and international isolation, the occupiers pay no penalty at all. On the contrary, they are aided and armed to the hilt by the US and its allies.
Given the speed at which Israel continues to create facts on the ground, it's no surprise that even Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, warned a few days ago that the "window for a two-state solution" could be closing. But it is of course her government that has underpinned this takeover at every stage. And having preached democracy as the salvation of the Middle East, the US and its allies demonstrated what that meant in practice when it greeted the winners of the Palestinian elections with a political and economic boycott.
Unless Hamas recognised Israel, renounced violence and signed up to agreements it had always opposed, the western powers insisted, the Palestinian electorate would be ignored. No such demands, needless to say, have been made of Israel. The US and Israel then went one step further, funding and arming a section of the defeated Fatah leadership in an attempt to overthrow Hamas's administration. When that failed, the US encouraged Abbas to impose an unconstitutional administration of his own and blocked any power-sharing with Hamas, which is the precondition for Palestinian advance.
Instead, the US is gearing up for a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, from which Hamas is excluded and which almost nobody believes offers any prospect of real progress towards a settlement. Its main appeal to the Bush administration is perhaps that it can be seen to be doing something about the Israel-Palestine conflict at a time when it needs to corral its Arab allies for the coming confrontation with Iran. For the Palestinians, it's maybe just as well that the Israeli government is resistant to any timetable for statehood - let alone serious negotiation on Jerusalem, refugees and final borders - as any agreement that such a weak leadership could now secure would not stand a chance of being accepted by its people.
Already, Hamas and the other non-Fatah Palestinian parties are preparing to stage their own conference in Damascus to coincide with the Annapolis jamboree. Their aim is to challenge the right of Abbas, who has never had any of the legitimacy of Yasser Arafat, to represent the Palestinian people in negotiations over its future. While they were prepared to accept him as a negotiator for a national unity government, there will be no acceptance of deals made by a figure many Palestinians now regard as simply operating under US and Israeli licence.
Nor should there be any interest in such a setup for anyone who wants to see a lasting settlement of the conflict. As in previous periods when political progress has been blocked, there are clear signs that pressures for a return to wider resistance are building up on the Palestinian side. The head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, said on Monday that he did not expect a new intifada if Annapolis failed because the Palestinian public was "exhausted and lacks leadership". It's true that any new upsurge in violence is likely to be different from in the past. But Palestinians are also well aware that it was the first intifada that led to the Oslo agreement, for all its weaknesses, and the second intifada that triggered Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza.
Hamas has mostly held back from armed action against Israel in the past couple of years, though it has allowed attacks by others. That may be about to change. This week Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, declared that "every passing day brings us closer to a broad operation in Gaza", while Hamas leader Ahmad Nimr told a rally that the movement was now ready to "strike inside the heart of Israel, the occupation entity" if Israel did not stop its killings in Gaza. Hamas has a variety of options - including rocket attacks on Israeli cities from the West Bank over the much-vaunted security barrier - that could dramatically escalate the conflict. The wider international interest in a just settlement could not be more obvious.
© 2007 The Guardian