The Israeli Attorney General, Menachem Mazuz, will this week decide whether to tighten to slow the strangulation of an entire people. Since the democratically elected Hamas government took power in the Gaza Strip in June, the 1.5 million people who live in that cramped and crumbling prison on the Mediterranean have been punished by being choked off from the world. Gaza is surrounded by gun-toting soldiers and razor-wire; nothing goes out, and almost nothing goes in.
The result? The factories are shuttered. Some 85 per cent of the people have no work. Virtually all the essential building projects - including repairs to the sewage system - have stopped, because there is no concrete. The price of flour has soared by 80 per cent. The banks have almost run out of money. The charity Save the Children say that malnutrition - once confined to the worst refugee camps - is rippling out into the general population.
And then a new form of punishment was thought of. The Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak decided to turn out the lights. Some 60 per cent of Gaza's power supply comes from Israel - so Barak decided to halt it. Food rotted in freezers. Work in hospitals stuttered to a halt. Israel's message seemed to be: Let there be darkness.
This plan was halted when a slew of brave Israeli human rights organisations appealed to the Attorney General, claiming the black-outs were illegal. He is mulling it over. But he refuses to stop the overall blockade, and he has waved through plans to choke off Gaza's supply of diesel - necessary to run ambulances and the few remaining sparks of economic activity.
The Israeli government claims it has to engage in this because Qassam rockets are being fired from Gaza at the nearby Israeli civilian city of Sderot. But the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has shown that these rockets are being fired in retaliation for Israeli attacks against Gaza's civilians. He writes: "Anyone who takes an honest look at the progression of events during the past two months will discover that the Qassams have a context: they are almost always fired after an IDF [Israeli Defence Force] assassination operation, and there have been many of these. The question of who started it is not a childish question in this context. The IDF has returned to liquidations, and in a big way. And in their wake there has been an increase in Qassam firings."
Once this is pointed out, the Israeli government shifts to a different rationale. It says its goal is to put pressure on the Palestinian people, so that they realise their folly and get rid of Hamas. But imagine if the surrounding Arab countries had decided to punish Israel for electing Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert by encircling it with tanks and barbed wire, shooting anyone who tried to get out, and ruining the Israeli economy. Would the Israeli people have shrugged, expelled Sharon, and elected the peace party Me'retz? Of course not. They would have turned to whichever hardline party promised to fight back with the biggest guns and loudest rockets. The Palestinians are just doing the same.
Whenever I try to explain this, I think of a 19-year-old girl called Mirsat Massoud. I went to her home in Jaballya refugee camp in Gaza last winter. She wasn't there: she had blown herself up a few weeks before, and I wanted to understand why. As their remaining children scampered around us, her parents explained that Mirsat had lived all her life in this bashed-up, broken-down camp, and she had never left the claustrophobic cramp of Gaza.
Her mother, Hijam, told me that as a small girl Mirsat would wake to the sound of Apache helicopters above the camp. When she was 10 she saw Israeli soldiers shoot up a family in their car. "She was nervous all the time," Hijam said. But she didn't fall for extremism, at first. She joined Fatah, and campaigned for Mahmoud Abbas to become president. But Mirsat was shocked to see Abbas being so blatantly humiliated: he offered Israel negotiations and compromise, and in return Sharon snubbed him. She felt it as her own humiliation. She was drawn towards Hamas, and as the attacks in Gaza became more extreme, so did she.
On the morning she blew herself up - taking a clutch of Israeli soldiers with her - Mirsat's father, Amin, found her watching the television at 4am and crying. He explains: "She just kept saying, 'Now they are firing at schoolchildren.' She kept repeating it again and again. She was very distressed." A school bus carrying 20 nursery school kids through Beit Lahia had been hit by an IDF shell. Their teacher was killed in front of them, the blood splattering over the kids. Two teenagers walking to school on the street were also blasted to pieces. "I think that is what tipped her over the edge," her father says. "She became a martyr that afternoon."
Mirsat's mother tries to offer all the standard-issue bravado about how she is "proud" of her daughter's actions. So I ask if she would like her other children to be suicide-bombers. Reflexively, without thinking, she clutches the son who is at her heels, hard. "No," she whispers.
The harder Israel beats Gaza, the harder its people become. Even the right-wing Jerusalem Post - a cheerleader for the strategy of strangulation - admitted this week that "there is no doubt that Hamas [is] now stronger than it has ever been." This programme of collective punishment is a gift to Hamas, and the even more extreme organisations to its right. Punish moderates, you get radicals. Punish radicals, you get extreme radicals. There is another way. End the collective punishment, and engage with the Gazan people's elected representatives. Invite Hamas to the Annapolis "peace" summit in Maryland this month. Talk. I loathe Hamas - but it is the elected government, and it is making Israel a decent offer. Haniyeh has talked privately about a 20- or even 40-year hudna (ceasefire), provided Israel withdraws to the legal 1967 borders. Forty years is a very long time. If they have a four-decade stretch of economic development, without being terrorised by Israel, how likely is it the Palestinian people will want to pursue war to reclaim the rest of historical Palestine in 2047? They barely want it today, as you can tell from the fact that all their elected leaders are prepared - in practice - to accept a two-state solution, here, now, if only Israel would too.
As I left her home, Mirsat's father peered at me very closely and said: "I want my daughter to be the last suicide-bomber. But when our children grow up like this" - he waved his hand across the refugee camp - "how can she be?" If next week the Attorney General decides to plunge a new generation of Palestinian children into darkness, he will ensure that more Israeli civilians die, far on to the bloody horizon.
© 2007 The Independent