Nine or more dead and many injured. Worldwide outrage, not just in the streets but in hitherto-sympathetic Western capitals. A public relations disaster for Israel of the first order.
Yet, despite it all, the fundamentals of Middle East reality have not changed. The “facts on the ground” have been moving against peace for some time, but perpetual warfare remains as unappealing as ever. And it remains true, as I have been saying now for several years, that lasting peace will require, one day, negotiations between an Israeli government and Hamas.
That prospect now looks further away than ever. Israel has now moved beyond its ritual demonisation of Hamas to the point where even Western sympathisers with Hamas are ipso facto regarded as terrorists. The fact that some members of the aid convoy had been filmed singing pro-Hamas songs is being treated in all seriousness as a justification for killing them.
The barriers to negotiation on both sides are great and are growing. Hamas’ past record of terror has helped to push Israeli politics to the right, and Israel’s treatment of Gaza has in turn discredited the voices for moderation within Hamas.
While intransigence is a general problem, at the moment Israeli intransigence is more significant: first because Israeli politics has shifted more dramatically, and secondly because Israeli co-operation is more vital. One can imagine a peace process (much abused term though that is) that starts without Hamas but brings it in at a later stage, but without Israel it will be all but impossible to get a process going in the first place.
It is worth recalling that there was nothing inevitable about this. After Hamas’ election in 2006, opinion polling showed that more than three-quarters of its supporters wanted a negotiated peace with Israel. At the same time, two-thirds of Israelis supported negotiations with a Palestinian administration that included Hamas. And Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s prime minister, explicitly foreshadowed “a day when he would be invited to the White House to sign a peace agreement with the Israelis”.
Opinion on both sides has shifted since, and left to their own devices it is hard to see the parties doing anything to shift it back. But this week’s bloodshed will add to the pressure on the international community — and especially the United States — to do more to move both sides to the negotiating table.
For now that seems an almost utopian thought. Yet the dispute is not fundamentally intractable; everyone knows more or less what a peace settlement would look like, if only enough goodwill could be generated to start things moving. Surely the prospect of Israel-Hamas talks is no more fantastic than the idea of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sharing government in Northern Ireland.
Yet that happened. Terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology, and former terrorists mutate into peaceful politicians all the time. It can happen in the Middle East, but there is still a very long road ahead.