Set aside the legalities of Israel's attack against an aid flotilla in international waters and the utter contemptibility of its willingness to use brute force against civilians. What is especially shocking about yesterday's attack is the message it sends to the world of its willingness to use violence with impunity. Israel also did this in Dubai, sending agents with counterfeit passports to execute a Hamas operative. It has done so blatantly in Lebanon for decades. Now it is doing so in international waters against a ship launched from a country that was once its lone strategic ally in the Muslim world, Turkey.
A confrontation might have been inevitable between Israel and the activists aboard the freedom flotilla hoping to deliver aid to Gaza. Few would have expected such a vicious outcome. It is difficult to understate the consequences of this massacre of civilians and aid workers. You need only look at who emerges as the winners and losers in this debacle to understand the damage of Israel's attack. With its heavy-handed treatment of peace activists, Israel has undermined any efforts to restart the peace process and made fools of anyone who advocates diplomacy over conflict.
Arab moderates who have called for dialogue with Israel yet again receive a slap in the face for their efforts. Fatah's participation in proximity talks seems impossible now, derailing even the most tentative attempt to have the Palestinians sit at the same table with the Israelis. Those who oppose peace and stoke hatred were victorious yesterday. The Right in Israel is already crowing. Danny Ayalon, who recently courted controversy by humiliating the Turkish ambassador to Israel, has described the freedom flotilla as an "armada of hate", a description that unfortunately will resonate with a broad segment of Israel's population. The inevitable international response may only harden the stance of the anti-peace parties in Israel's government.
Hamas, too, has scored something of a public relations coup. Hamas could be left to alienate the Palestinian population with false promises and its preference for bombast over substance. Yet, Israel continues to grant Hamas hardliners a veneer of legitimacy by acting like heartless murderers. Ishmael Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, appeared to relish Israel's behaviour yesterday morning. "If Israel behaves like pirates and sea-terrorists, we will win," he said. They did, and Hamas won.
There is one positive outcome in all this: as we mourn the dead, we can also learn from their sacrifice. Through peaceful activism they have done more to cast light on Israel's barbaric practices than any suicide bombing or rocket attack. It is a tragedy that they have died, but if they have inspired others to combat violence with peaceful protest, then they did not give up their lives in vain.