Yesterday's sickening massacre of teenage boys at a religious school in Jerusalem is now being claimed by Hamas.*
This is particularly depressing, coming after Hamas' suicide attack on Dimona last month, because it represents a defeat for moderates within the group who were agitating for a shift of accent away from military operations and toward political solutions. These moves have been rejected at every turn by Israel and the West - for example, by starving the people of Gaza as punishment for voting for Hamas in an election, or by plotting a coup against the elected Palestinian government. It now appears that the small opportunity to take a step closer to peace that was offered by possible Hamas moderation is beginning to fade.
Of course, Hamas is far more of a threat to Israeli state power (not the Israeli population) as a political group that refuses to relinquish its people's rights than it is as a group of terrorist killers of innocent people. Hamas' reversion to these attacks, after a several months long unilateral ceasefire which held up reasonably well, is the predictable consequence of Israel and its allies slamming the door shut on Hamas moderation. Blood flows as a consequence.
Over the next few days, weeks and months, we can expect yesterday's massacre to be ruthlessly exploited for every ounce of propaganda value by the Israeli government and its apologists. A huge effort will be made to cast this attack as what Israeli spokesman Mark Regev called "a defining moment", placing it at the centre of the conflict and indeed portraying it, and acts of terrorism like it, as the reason for the conflict.
Terrorism is not the reason for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reason is the occupation, of which terrorism is an ugly and entirely predictable symptom.
Let me quote at length from January's report by UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard (the whole report is absolutely required reading for anyone with a serious interest in this issue). Remember, the following is not drawn from a radical Islamist source or from some obscure left-wing publication. It is the considered opinion of a 71 year old South African professor of international law, who has served as a judge on the International Court of Justice and who has written extensively on South African apartheid.
In his capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Dugard reported as follows:
"Terrorism is a scourge, a serious violation of human rights and international humanitarian law. No attempt is made in the reports [presented to the UN by Dugard] to minimize the pain and suffering it causes to victims, their families and the broader community. Palestinians are guilty of terrorizing innocent Israeli civilians by means of suicide bombs and Qassam rockets. Likewise the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) are guilty of terrorizing innocent Palestinian civilians by military incursions, targeted killings and sonic booms that fail to distinguish between military targets and civilians. All these acts must be condemned and have been condemned. Common sense, however, dictates that a distinction must be drawn between acts of mindless terror, such as acts committed by Al Qaeda, and acts committed in the course of a war of national liberation against colonialism, apartheid or military occupation. While such acts cannot be justified, they must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation. History is replete with examples of military occupation that have been resisted by violence - acts of terror. The German occupation was resisted by many European countries in the Second World War; the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) resisted South Africa's occupation of Namibia; and Jewish groups resisted British occupation of Palestine - inter alia, by the blowing up of the King David Hotel in 1946 with heavy loss of life, by a group masterminded by Menachim Begin, who later became Prime Minister of Israel. Acts of terror against military occupation must be seen in their historical context. This is why every effort should be made to bring the occupation to a speedy end. Until this is done peace cannot be expected, and violence will continue. In other situations, for example Namibia, peace has been achieved by the ending of occupation, without setting the end of resistence as a precondition. Israel cannot expect perfect peace and the end of violence as a precondition for the ending of the occupation."
"A further comment on terrorism is called for. In the present international climate it is easy for a State to justify its repressive measures as a response to terrorism - and to expect a sympathetic hearing. Israel exploits the present international fear of terrorism to the full. But this will not solve the Palestinian problem. Israel must address the occupation and the violation of human rights and international humanitarian law it engenders, and not invoke the justification of terrorism as a distraction, as a pretext for failure to confront the root causes of Palestinian violence - the occupation."
What follows inescapably from this is that anyone with a genuine desire to ensure that atrocities like that committed yesterday never happen again will be redoubling their efforts to campaign for the end of the illegal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip - "the root cause of Palestinian violence". Some, like the Israeli government, will use yesterday's atrocity as "a pretext for failure" to end that occupation. They will hasten their continuing colonisation of stolen land, and blame the consequences of their crimes for their failure to end those crimes - a wonderfully absurd and self-serving piece of propagandist non-logic. We can only conclude from this that the Israeli government has little more respect for Israeli life than it does for Palestinian life. It accepts Israeli deaths from Palestinian terrorism, the "inevitable consequence" of its policies, as a price worth paying in exchange for the prime real estate it is stealing from the Palestinians, in flagrant breach of international law.
Israel-Palestine is not complicated. Its "root cause" is the theft, occupation and systematic crushing of an innocent civilian population by the Israeli state (a catastrophe described in heart-rending detail here by a group of leading aid agencies) in epic and serial breaches of international law and common morality. The solution is well known - the immediate and total end of the occupation, and a Palestinian state with fully equal rights to the Israeli state being established on the whole of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza strip - i.e. Israel's immediate adherence with international law.
And there is a single and straightforward test of a person's seriousness when they talk about an end to this conflict. Are they focusing their efforts on effecting the solution just described? Or are they finding reasons to shift the focus elsewhere? Judge the verbal and policy responses to yesterdays events, from politicians and commentators, on that basis.
*[update - there's some confusion in the press this afternoon about whether this claim of responsibility was genuine, as it was originally reported].