If you have never been there, it's hard to give a sense of the cramped claustrophobia of Gaza. It is a tiny patch of land squeezed between the sea and the local superpower, where 1.4 million people live locked in fear and never leave. I couldn't find anybody my age who had ever been beyond Gaza in the rotting refugee camps and concrete slabs of poverty that fill the Strip.
They were stuck in their little sand-and-concrete hole, smaller than the Isle of Wight, dreaming angry dreams of Jerusalem; the rest of the world seems to them unimaginably far away. Their world begins and ends with the beaches to one side - now unusable because of Israeli attacks - and the tanks to the other.
Over the past three weeks, as so often before, the entire population of Gaza has been subject to collective punishment. The civilian population is woken in the night by "sonic booms", sudden deafening noise-explosions caused by Israeli planes that everyone assumes, for a terrible moment, are bombs being dropped on them. The civilian population is being starved. Although 14 per cent of their children were already suffering from levels of malnutrition that match sub-Saharan Africa, food supplies into Gaza are being restricted. Dov Weisglass, an adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister, refers to this with a chuckle as "putting the Palestinians on a diet". And the civilian population is being bombed. In the week we were grieving for the slaughtered of 7/7, the same number of Palestinians have been blown up, many of them women and children in their own homes.
The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz gave a small snapshot of what this looks like for Gazans. Last Thursday morning, Illan as-Siam was sitting at home with his wife and three children when an Israeli tank smashed into their garden. Armed soldiers got out and, aiming guns at the children, they announced they were turning the house into a temporary military base. They were forbidden from even going to the lavatory. When they cracked and let the crying 11-year-old go, he was accompanied at gunpoint.
What are they being punished for, these 1.4 million people? What has happened that makes Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, say: "I want no one to sleep at night in Gaza. I want them to know what it feels like"? The vast majority, of course, have done nothing. More than half the population of Gaza are children. Among the adults, 67 per cent want a two-state solution with Israel and an end to attacks on Israeli civilians.
But "they" - everyone, innocent or guilty - are being ostensibly punished for three reasons. The first is that an Israeli soldier has been kidnapped. He is the only Israeli being detained by the Palestinians. By contrast, the Israelis are currently holding 8,200 Palestinian fighters, 800 of them Guantanamo-style, without charge and indefinitely. Some of these people were involved in attacks upon the Israeli civilian population and deserve to be severely punished - but the vast majority were simply resisting violent occupying troops within Gaza and the West Bank.
The second public reason is that, against the will of the majority, a tiny number of Palestinians are firing Qassam rockets at Israel from the West Bank. Thirteen Israeli civilians have ever died in this way - in contrast to the 238 Palestinians killed from the air since the Israeli "disengagement" from Gaza. If the Israelis are entitled to bomb in response, what are the Palestinians entitled to do? The current firing of rockets only began after Israeli forces broke their promise to provide Gazans with a safe passage to the West Bank, declared economic war on their elected leadership, and struck at the Islamic University in Gaza.
The final public reason is that the Palestinians chose - in free, open elections - to elect Hamas. I dislike Hamas intensely. It is an organisation that loathes women's rights, believes in the execution of homosexuals, and defends the deliberate targeting of Jewish children. But the Palestinian people did not give them a mandate on that basis. They gave Hamas a mandate to eradicate the fetid corruption of Fatah, and they made it clear that they expect Hamas to pursue any real path to peace that came along.
That's why last month, when the Fatah President, Mahmoud Abbas, threatened to use his remaining powers to hold a referendum on accepting Israel's existence over the heads of Hamas, the Islamist organisation quickly backed down. They made clear signals that they would accept peace with Israel after all.
But here we come to the real reason for the assault the world - including, very publicly, Kofi Annan - is watching in disbelief. Most people would expect any Israeli government to celebrate the news that even the radical wing of the Palestinians were poised to accept Israel's existence. But once Hamas makes this commitment, there is no longer any excuse to refuse serious peace negotiations - and that was never part of the Sharon-Kadima plan, inherited and followed to the letter by Olmert.
We need to look at the origins of the Kadima approach to understand what is happening in Gaza. Ariel Sharon did not have a Damascene conversion to the cause of Palestinian self-determination in his seventies, after a lifetime of trying to crush it. He simply realised that unless the borders of Israel were quickly redrawn, the higher Arab birth-rate was going to soon produce an Arab majority living between the River and the Sea under Israeli rule. This would leave Israel with a choice: either become an apartheid state and lose even American support, or be voted out of existence.
Sharon chose to steer away from this by redrawing the country's boundaries unilaterally to ensure a Jewish majority, on his own terms and in his own way. This would allow him to seize the choicest morsels of the West Bank - including the major settlements and the all-important water supplies - and leave the Palestinians with barren scraps like Gaza.
The only thing that could obstruct this plan is the arrival of a Palestinian "partner for peace", somebody the world could demand that Israel negotiate with. Inevitably, any negotiations would require Olmert to give up some of the areas he is currently planning to seize. Sharon had already snubbed Abbas when he offered just this back in 2002, concocting an excuse about him not disarming the militias quickly enough. (If Abbas had done what Sharon demanded, he would be dead now.) Over the past three weeks, confronted with the possibility that even Hamas would negotiate, Olmert has continued Sharon's strategy. He has tried to choke off any possible partner by invading Gaza and attempting to stoke yet further Palestinian radicalisation.
The last three weeks have not been primarily about an Israeli soldier, a slew of rockets, or Hamas. They are about the determination of the Israeli government to unilaterally seize chunks of the West Bank, and to refuse to negotiate, any time, any place, anywhere.Reuse content