The bloody events which unfolded in the south-eastern corner of the Mediterranean sea in the early hours of Monday morning and their diplomatic aftermath are likely to dominate news from the Middle East, perhaps for some time to come. The question is whether their true meaning will be buried in the wholly essential but narrow debate on exactly how and why the carnage unfolded when Israel's naval commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara in international waters 75 miles off its coast. For beyond the issues of whether or not the killings were perpetrated in self defence, whether the pro-Palestinian activists were right to ignore the warnings issued by the Israeli military and steam ahead, or even who was or wasn't justified in international law, is an issue about which high-level denial in the past three years has been all-too easy.
Amid all the expressions of outrage at the killings one of the most telling was that issued by the International Crisis Group in the name of Robert Malley, the director of its Middle East Programme and a member of President Bill Clinton's team at the tragically abortive peace talks at Camp David in 2000. The assault on the flotilla was "but a symptom of an approach that has been implicitly endorsed by many", Malley said in a statement which charged that it was also an "indictment of a much broader policy toward Gaza for which Israel does not bear sole responsibility". Malley did not put it quite like this, but what he clearly had in mind was that the very same Western powers now wringing their hands have been complicit in a disastrous and counter-productive policy in Gaza itself over at least the past three years.
Perhaps too much of the argument about Gaza, on both sides, has used the word "humanitarian" as if the only question for the territory's 1.5m inhabitants is whether they do or not have the essentials for bare physical survival. For while there is deep and corrosive world-class poverty in many parts of Gaza, people are not dying in the streets from hunger. There are traffic jams in Gaza City; the grocery stores are relatively full, as much thanks to smuggled – and therefore expensive – goods from Egypt through the tunnels as to the hundreds of truckloads of supplies a week which are indeed admitted from Israel. Yet the real crisis developing in Gaza beneath this veneer of semi-normality is something much less visible than famine, and much more dangerous than the mystery of why Israel's opaque regime of permitted goods puts coriander but not cinnamon on its banned list. It is the gradual but systematic dismantling of a vital, historically well-educated, and in many respects self-reliant civilisation.
It is widely accepted internationally that the blockade is hurting the civilian population much more than Hamas, whose grip has tightened in the last three years. It has destroyed a once-entrepreneurial and productive economy, ensured that 80 per cent of its population now depend on food aid, left most of its water undrinkable, and prevented reconstruction of some 75 per cent of the buildings destroyed by Israel's devastating military offensive in the winter of 2008-9, not to mention many, many thousands more destroyed since the beginning of the intifada in 2000; or the building of 100 new schools the UN refugee agency Unrwa desperately needs to meet its ever-soaring demands. It's because world leaders understand this – at least on a theoretical basis since few ever enter Gaza – that the Quartet of the US, EU, Russia and the UN has repeatedly called for the siege to be lifted.
The results are unimpressive. Take the single example of cement. After nine months of negotiation Israel agreed to imports for a very limited number of internationally supervised infrastructure projects and to finish a derisory 150 houses in Khan Yunis that had been 85 per cent completed before the 2008-9 war. A consequence is that the UN, which is wholly dependent on Israel since it cannot patronise the "tunnels economy", looks increasingly weak compared with the de facto Hamas government, which faces no such constraints. Similarly the bona fide private sector entrepreneurs – most have long had the Israeli security clearance which gave them the freedom to travel freely across the border in better times and sometimes still does – have lost out to a tunnels-based black economy controlled by Hamas and its handpicked middlemen, the new businessmen of Gaza.
While Israel says it cannot allow more cement in case Hamas seizes it for military bunkers, its clear the de facto government already has, thanks to the tunnels, all the cement it needs. It has, for example, just announced a plan to build 1,000 new homes in Jabalya. As every Western diplomat knows, the vast majority of tunnels exist solely because of the blockade. If the blockade was lifted, the authority of the international community's institutions would increase. Yet this has done nothing to shift the paralysis of the western powers in the face of Israel's opposition to easing the blockade.
If ever there was an opportunity to reverse that dismal record it is now, at the very moment when there should be the keenest focus on whether the policy which led up to Monday's bloody climax can finally be changed. Which is why for all its messy mixture of political motives and the bloody finale in which the flotilla was halted, there may actually be lessons from this bleak story for the international community in how to close the increasingly embarrassing gap between its stated policy and the reality.
Ideally Israel would now rethink a policy which there is every reason for thinking is not only catastrophic for Gaza's people, but also not in its own long-term interests. But if not, there may be ways in which the international community can shake off its passivity in the face of this unfolding tragedy. For if broadly friendly governments – preferably within the Quartet but if not outside it – were to confront Israel with the prospect of mounting their own, much more official and internationally sanctioned official maritime relief operation, it would be exponentially more difficult for the Netanyhau government to see it off than it has, however messily and lethally, this week's flotilla.
Implausible as it may seem at first sight, the idea has been discussed at a high level in international diplomatic circles. The only senior UN figure brave enough to float the idea publicly, however, is Unrwa's Gaza director of operations, John Ging, who mentioned sea access when he argued in an interview more than a month before Monday's fiasco, that it was time for the international community "physically" to do something about "rescuing" Gaza. While the Israeli claim that an unchecked activist flotilla entering Gaza compromises its security may be understandable, it could hardly say the same about allied or UN ships.
A seaborne operation would also get round an Israeli security objection to reopening the big cargo land crossing at Karni – the perceived vulnerability of Israeli drivers and security personnel to Palestinian attack. And if Hamas seized the unloaded cargo, as it has not done in the case of limited shipments made for infrastructure projects, the operation could cease immediately. Of course it should be co-ordinated with Israel, which after all is already repeatedly making the point that it was prepared to take the goods brought by the flotilla into Gaza once they had been checked. It is a matter of conjecture whether Israel could be persuaded to offer such co-ordination without a clear threat to go ahead without it. But it is hard to imagine it would use force to stop the ships of a friendly state. And yet, up to this week, the idea was at risk of going into deep freeze, partly because of Israel's resistance.
Unless Monday marks a turning point that will see the reversal of Israel's blockade, as it certainly should, the relief idea should now be speedily revived. After all, the three dominant values which have permeated Western thinking over the last half century have been enterprise, freedom and democracy. Each one is violated on a daily basis in Gaza by the international community's failure to act on its own regular calls for a lifting of the blockade.
Enterprise? It is difficult to see how the collapse of hundreds of companies, mostly owned by people with no love for Hamas, and many enjoying close relationship with Israeli customers, helped Israeli security. Let alone the consequential drift of the unemployed into jobs with Hamas, including its armed paramilitary wings. And that's before mentioning agriculture or fishing. To take a single example, if security is the reason for the one-mile fishing limit, why were Gaza fishermen allowed to travel 12 miles offshore at the peak of the intifada in 2002?
Freedom? The trapping of civilians in Gaza was not only an outrage in the 2008-9 offensive, when it prevented them leaving the war zone as they would have done in almost any other part of the world. It is also – to take a single example – keeping thousands of young students, a generation ambitious to help their homeland, from the postgraduate education they crave in the pluralistic world of foreign, Israeli, and even West Bank universities.
Democracy? Are Gazans still being punished for voting for Hamas in 2006 in clearly free and fair elections? But in the West Bank – now favoured by a real, if still precarious, increase in economic growth – a majority also voted for Hamas. Nor can the Gazan public as a whole remotely be blamed for the armed seizure of Gaza by Hamas after the brief but bloody civil war with Fatah which broke the coalition between the factions – the very seizure which was the trigger for the blockade. Any more than it can be for the abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit four years ago.
And if Gazans would now prefer the leadership of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank – as they might – there is nothing they can do about it while Hamas has the guns and control of the streets (a control which paradoxically is currently maintaining a de facto, if far-from perfect, ceasefire with Israel). The idea that that a civilian population can somehow achieve what an armed and partially US-backed Fatah failed to do in June 2007 and topple Hamas is fantasy.
This week could and should indeed mark a turning point in which Israel will be urged to ease the blockade of Gaza. What is needed is not principally more "humanitarian" goods but a real opening of borders to the commercial imports and exports that can revive Gaza's stricken economy – and hopes – once again and begin to reconstruct its war ravaged infrastructure, as the international community pledged an almost wholly unspent $5bn to do after the 2008-9 war.
And if Israel persists in the face of such urgings to maintain the blockade, it will be hard to escape the conclusion that it is comfortable with a policy which threatens to nurture groups more extreme than Hamas as no more than a useful example of what happens when it "abandons" territory (which in terms of control of its borders, airspace, and as we were painfully reminded this week, its coastal waters, it never really did when Ariel Sharon pulled the settlers out in 2005).
But blaming Israel – and Egypt, which repeatedly enforces closures on Gaza's southern border – for the blockade is too easy. For just as the international ban on talking to Hamas isolated its more pragmatic elements, so the West's tolerance of the siege has strengthened the Islamic faction's more repressive ones, turning Gaza in on itself. A lawful naval relief operation – or even a threat of it that might produce a real easing of what the UN sees as an unlawful blockade – might help to restore international influence over a territory which remains crucial to any settlement in the Middle East. And it would certainly would go a long way to redeeming the West's woeful inaction over the last three years.