Editor's note: Robert Malley is program director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, working with analysts based in Amman, Jordan; Cairo, Egypt; Beirut, Lebanon; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Baghdad, Iraq, who make policy recommendations to address conflicts there. He was special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, and was executive assistant to former National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger.
Washington (CNN) -- The tragic events that occurred in the waters off Gaza have prompted calls for an investigation into Israel's operation. An inquiry is indeed urgently needed, but its focus should be neither on Israel alone nor on its botched military assault. Rather, it ought to be on a morally and politically bankrupt policy toward Gaza and on the many in the region and around the world who backed it.
When Hamas assumed full control of Gaza in June 2007, already-tight access and movement restrictions were tightened further. Israel curtailed cross-border traffic, refusing to deal with an entity whose rulers fired, or threatened to fire, rockets at its citizens.
Many in the West, in particular the U.S., sought to undermine Hamas' standing and quietly embraced a policy they half-heartedly criticized in public. Others -- the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and several Arab regimes included -- did their part to prevent normal functioning of government.
There was an overriding logic to the policy: to demonstrate to Palestinians that Hamas could not deliver and so ought to be cast aside. The hope was that Gazans, embittered by their living conditions and envious of the more attractive West Bank model, would turn against their rulers and that, even if they did not rise up, Hamas' failings would redound to Fatah's and to the Palestinian Authority's benefit. From the outset, that theory was deeply flawed on humanitarian and legal grounds; it was premised on the notion that one could justifiably punish an entire population because of the identity and practices of its leadership.
It also was politically misguided. True, Gazans, who are distressed by economic hardship and angry at the Islamists' at times brutal behavior, are said to be turning against Hamas. But this is of little consequence. The loss of popular support has not loosened Hamas' grip on power, which remains unchallenged. The Islamic movement's losses are not Fatah's gains; Gazans blame Hamas for being unable to end the siege but also blame Israel for imposing it, the West for implicitly supporting it and Fatah for implicitly acquiescing in it.
In fact, the blockade has unwittingly helped Hamas tighten its hold by drying up the private sector and enabling the Islamic movement to allocate scarce resources. As so often is the case, economic punishment designed to hurt the rulers has hurt the ruled. Those intending to undermine Hamas instead have given it an assist.
Gaza's closure is having other highly pernicious, long-term effects. Poverty and hopelessness inevitably boost the appeal of militancy and a more radical brand of Islam than Hamas', particularly among Gazans who are under 16 -- half the population. Meanwhile, the situation provides a vivid reminder of the harshest aspects of Israeli policy and of the United States' inability or unwillingness to press for them to be altered. For an administration determined to display a different face to Arabs and Muslims worldwide, Gaza is a perpetual black eye.
As the fate of Gaza's flotilla illustrates, the status quo is unsustainable. Activists will continue to try to break the blockade, and Israel will continue to try to stop them. These encounters will be as many tragedies waiting to happen.
The alternative -- ending the siege on Gaza -- is neither easy nor self-evident. Israel has legitimate security concerns about what might enter Gaza and who will use it. It believes that squeezing Gaza will increase pressure on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal held captive by the Islamists. It frets that a policy shift will boost Hamas' credibility.
But these worries make sense only if one believes the current policy offers a solution to them. It does not: By Israel's own account, weapons are smuggled through tunnels; Hamas is no closer to losing power; there is no evidence that making ordinary Gazans suffer is working to draw concessions on a prisoner exchange from Hamas' leadership.
For the Obama administration, this crisis presents an opportunity to demonstrate concern both for the well-being of Palestinians and the safety of Israel. Its goal should be to immediately lift the siege, open Gaza's crossings with Israel and Egypt, dispatch its own large-scale provision of goods and facilitate a credible international presence to verify what comes into Gaza and monitor its end-use.
Its objective, in other words, should be to break from a mindset that sees any improvement in Gaza as a gain for Hamas and any gain for Hamas as a loss for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Such a shift cannot happen if the international community refuses to alter its approach toward the Islamist movement. This does not mean full-fledged, unconditional acceptance. But, at a minimum, it means some form of engagement to achieve a more solid cease-fire and practical methods for ending the siege. Over time and in some fashion, this could expand to political dialogue.
The real task today is not to modulate the flow of goods, augmenting it slightly to pacify activists or mitigate human suffering. The real question is, as it always has been, a political one.
And so political decisions -- about how to deal with Gaza and what to do with Hamas -- inevitably, inescapably will have to be made.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Malley.