The killing continues on a daily basis - by tank and sniper fire, by air and sea bombardment, and by undercover teams in civilian clothes sent into Arab territory to ambush and murder, an Israeli specialty perfected over the past several decades.
How long will the "international community" allow the slaughter to continue? The cruel repression of the Occupied Territories, and of Gaza in particular, is one of the most scandalous in the world today. It is the blackest stain on Israel's patchy record as a would-be democratic state.
Some form of intervention is urgently required, perhaps in the form of an international force on the border between Israel and Gaza, to protect each side from the other, to allow some air into the moribund Gaza economy, and to bring relief to a humanitarian catastrophe.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair - verbally, at least, a staunch supporter of a two-state solution - must feel a certain sense of guilt at having failed to persuade US President George W. Bush to advance the cause of Palestinian self-determination. By joining Bush in the invasion of Iraq, he may have imagined he could persuade the president to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He may have thought he had some sort of a deal. He was mistaken. He had counted without Washington's pro-Israeli neo-cons, and their influence on Bush's Middle East policy.
Far from reining in the Israeli hawks, messianic settlers, Arab-killers and expansionists, Bush gave them a completely free hand - and continues to do so.
This may explain why Blair, addressing his last Labor Party conference a month ago, announced that he would make resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the priority of his remaining time in office. Alas, no action has followed these brave words, save for a suggestion that Britain would help the Palestinians to build institutions.
Institutions? What fantasy world does Blair inhabit? One-and-a-half million Palestinians, two-thirds of them under the poverty line, suffering 45 percent unemployment, packed into a narrow strip of 360 square kilometers, are being besieged, starved, cut off from the world and bombed on a daily basis, and Blair talks about building Palestinian institutions! How about stopping the killing first? Does Britain's word count for nothing?
I have scoured British government Web sites and have found stirring speeches and statements by Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett and other officials about Iraq, Africa, Afghanistan, climate change and so forth, but not a word about the ongoing criminal subjugation of Gaza.
It has been left to Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian affairs coordinator, to describe Gaza as a "ticking bomb" and to warn of a social explosion. To end the shameful boycott of the democratically elected Hamas government, there are rumors that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, may appoint Munib al-Masri, a rich businessman from Nablus, to head a government of independent technocrats. At the time of writing, however, Hamas had not agreed to stand aside.
The endurance of Gaza is legendary, but even the bravest man must falter when he can no longer feed his children, and when his home is reduced to rubble.
The situation is all the more urgent because, according to reports from Israel, something bigger and still more lethal is in prospect. Fresh from the indiscriminate slaughter they unleashed on Lebanon this summer - and no doubt eager to efface the memory of that fiasco - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and the chief of staff, General Dan Halutz, are said to be about to launch a military offensive against Gaza, on a far larger scale than the bombardments and armored incursions of recent weeks and months.
Their declared aim is to put an end once and for all to the home-made Qassam rockets which defiant Palestinians still manage to fire from time to time into the Israeli Negev. These are highly irritating but largely ineffectual weapons. Five Israelis have been killed by these rockets in the past six years.
Another wider Israeli aim is to destroy Hamas and root out all armed Palestinian opposition to Israel in the Gaza Strip. General Halutz has been making lurid statements to the effect that Hamas and other Palestinian groups have smuggled millions of dollars worth of weapons into Gaza from Egypt - including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons as well tons of explosives - and have built a whole "underground city" to store their arsenal. Gaza, he declares, cannot be allowed to become another Lebanon. Israel has already partially reoccupied the so-called Philadelphi corridor on the Gaza-Egyptian border in an attempt to put an end to cross-border tunneling and smuggling.
In the occupied West Bank, the situation is less violent but in its way just as desperate. According to UN officials on the spot, the territory has been fragmented by no fewer than 528 Israeli military checkpoints, a 40 percent rise since August, which severely restrict Palestinian freedom of movement. Not only has the territory been chopped up into three regions - north, center and south - but even within these zones Palestinian communities are isolated from each other, making it very difficult for people to reach their land or gain access to basic services such as health and education. As the economy stagnates and the population suffers, Israel's separation wall continues to gobble up Palestinian land, while dozens of illegal settlements enjoy a building boom.
Even more disturbing than the silence from London at these developments, and the collusion of Washington, is the entry into the Israeli government of Avigdor Lieberman as deputy prime minister. Born in Moldovia, Lieberman, a burly 48-year old, came to Israel at the age of 20. He is the leader of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu (Israel our home), a party composed mainly of Russian immigrants.
Best known for having recommended flooding Egypt by bombing the Aswan Dam, he is an ardent champion of the settlers and opposes any withdrawal from Palestinian territory. His solution is the "transfer" of Arabs out of Israel so as to create an ethnically pure country. He has advocated death for any Arab members of the Knesset who dare to meet members of Hizbullah or Hamas. In any truly democratic country he would be denounced and shunned as a dangerous fascist.
Instead, Lieberman is to be given the job of formulating Israeli policy regarding the "strategic threat" facing the country - a code word for Iran's nuclear activities. As Haaretz, the left-of-center Israeli daily, commented: "The choice of the most unrestrained and irresponsible man around for this job constitutes a strategic threat in its own right."
The fact that Lieberman will have access to Israel's atomic secrets - and will serve in fact as a sort of super-defense minister - must be a source of considerable anxiety, seeing that Israeli leaders and commentators have repeatedly hinted that if the US fails to strike Iran, Israel may feel compelled to do so. With Lieberman's entry into the government, the Israeli-Iranian confrontation, one of the most dangerous in a volatile region, will be ratcheted up a notch or two.
The Labor leader, Amir Peretz - already a huge disappointment to the left for his bellicose policies in Lebanon and Gaza - seems quite happy to sit at the same Cabinet table with a notorious racist and Arab-hater.
With the world's attention focused on the unfolding disaster in Iraq, on the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and on how to how to moderate Iran's nuclear ambitions - three problems for which no credible solutions have yet been proposed - the Palestinians continue to bleed, starve and suffer unimaginable humiliations and hardships under Israel's pitiless rule.
Patrick Seale, a veteran Middle East correspondent, wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.