Counting the Gaza Dead: False equivalences, distorted dichotomies

Israel/Palestine
on 5 Comments
Gaza deaths
Click image to make larger. (Image: Visualizing Palestine)

According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, as of November 22nd, the number of deaths in the Gaza Strip due to Israel’s 8-day Pillar of Defense military onslaught there is 158.  As during the brutal Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, wherein Israel massacred over 1400 Palestinians in Gaza, concerned spectators – and Gazans themselves – watched with sour stomachs and furrowed brows to see just how far Israel would go this time: how many civilians it would kill, how many homes it would demolish, how many roads, hospitals, schools, and mosques it would destroy, how many traumatized, devastated survivors it would leave behind in its bloody wake.

One rudimentary measure of the destruction of any war is casualty numbers – answering the question, how many dead?  Media coverage typically reports Israeli and Palestinian casualty figures together, misleadingly suggesting an equality between them in either suffering or culpability.  Judged by these fatality numbers alone, however, Palestinian suffering is vastly greater:  approximately 158:5 times greater in this particular invasion, and 1417:14 times greater during Cast Lead.  (Visualizing Palestine has just released an astonishing graphic timeline of these ghastly disproportions.) 

Neither is culpability for this conflict equal.  The Gaza Strip remains under Israeli occupation (despite Israel’s 2005 “disengagement”) and has been under unrelenting siege since 2006.  Rockets fired by Hamas are neither terrorist attacks nor unprovoked acts of war.  They are acts of resistance against an obdurate, occupying power.

harvardprotest
A protester in Harvard Yard. (Photo: Alex Shams)

There is another problem in the standard reporting of casualties in addition to the false equivalence problem.  This is the gender problem, wherein Palestinian casualties are repeatedly disaggregated by sex.  As with the deaths of children and old people – obviously civilians and thus impossible to construe as legitimate military targets – so, too, the deaths of women are cited as evidence that Israel targets non-combatants.  This is likely done to underscore the viciousness of Israeli incursions by highlighting the innocence of Israel’s victims.

Aside from the fact that Israel’s targeting of civilians is well-documented, there are other problems with this otherwise well-intentioned form of casualty documentation.

First, disaggregating casualties by gender suggests that women, by definition, are not or cannot be freedom fighters.  This is patently false.

Second, disaggregating casualties by gender suggests that women’s deaths are more offensive or tragic than men’s. This is perhaps because of women’s presumed “innocence” (i.e., they are not resistance fighters), or because women (like children) are more vulnerable and therefore their murder is especially egregious, or because women are the bearers of children and so their murder is especially damaging to families or communities.  However, it is long past time to dispose of the mythology of women as “the weaker sex,” a canard we make true in part through our faithful repetition of it.  And valuing women because of their potential for pregnancy is a false flattery that reduces women to female biology and women’s importance to maternity.  (Not only are men also potential parents, but they are never reduced to this biological capacity when their deaths are catalogued.)  Indeed, imagining women as only or particularly mothers marks a shared politics with those on the Right who seek to outlaw abortion, birth control, and solo motherhood.

Third, disaggregating casualties by gender naturalizes men’s deaths, suggesting that men are the obvious targets of war and its inevitable casualties.  Men thereby become less grievable and warfare more normalized.  Under certain circumstances, men’s deaths are even honored or celebrated based on notions of duty, patriotism, or other forms of self-sacrifice deemed admirable within militarist norms. Presumably, however, we do not celebrate any death from war, just as we do not wish to normalize warfare or reproduce militarism.  We therefore must remember that men’s deaths in war are offensive, tragic, and grievable—just as much as, and no more than, women’s.

Finally, disaggregating casualties by gender reinforces gender binarism and suggests that, to be human, and therefore to have a properly grievable death, one must be clearly determinable as a man or a woman. Feminist and cultural critics have long established that clear and determinate gender is essential to rendering us human to other people.  Without a distinct gender, we remain unintelligible, not fully human, and therefore more easily ridiculed, brutalized, and killed.  The case of Tyra Hunter illustrates this – a woman whom emergency medical personnel allowed to die in the streets of Washington, D.C. when they cut off her clothes to treat her injuries and discovered her penis.  By insisting that the dead be gendered, we reinforce the belief that only the properly gendered are truly human.

We would do well to leave behind both false equivalences and distorted dichotomies as we bear witness to the suffering and brutalization of the people of Gaza.  This oppression is an offense to justice, regardless of anyone’s gender.  We need not seek yet more reasons to condemn Israel’s massacres of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.  The massacres themselves are bad enough.

About Heike Schotten

Heike Schotten is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is the author of, among others, “Reading Nietzsche in the Wake of the 2008-09 War on Gaza.

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5 Responses

  1. justicewillprevail
    November 25, 2012, 9:38 am

    Well, maybe you don’t like gender separation, but another way of highlighting the indifference and callousness of Israel towards the people it kills and injures is to look at how many children, who are presumably wholly innocent, are affected.

    link to independent.co.uk

    One third of those killed and injured are younger than 18, so just remind us how ‘surgical’ those strikes are, which Israelis constantly propagandise about, as if that lets them off the hook.

  2. Antidote
    November 25, 2012, 3:54 pm

    “another way of highlighting the indifference and callousness of Israel towards the people it kills and injures is to look at how many children, who are presumably wholly innocent, are affected.”

    Singling out Israel is anti-semitic, isn’t it? In my view, the tiresome moral outrage of Americans, Jewish or not, about the allegedly singular callousness of Israel/Israelis killing innocent children is nothing but projection and deflection, and especially rife among American liberals. They can’t do a damn thing about their country behaving worse than Israel, no matter for whom they vote, so they are pointing fingers at Israel, demanding, absurdly, that Obama must get Israel in line with ‘American values’, liberal values, Christian values, international law, and what not. I hate to burst your bubble, and you can shoot the messenger as long and hard as you want, but Israel has always been in line with what the US has very consistently PRACTISED, not PREACHED, for the past 2 centuries and longer:

    “In responding to the current attack, Arthur Silber also points to this this deeper look (from the 2009 slaughter in Gaza) at the template behind these spasms of atrocity — a template much used not only by the “light unto the nations” but also “the shining city on the hill”:

    For a very long time, the United States government has specialized in the pattern pursued by Israel. The vastly more powerful nation wishes to act on a certain policy — almost always territorial expansion, for purposes of access to resources, or to force itself into new markets, or to pursue the evil notion that economic and ideological success depend on brutality and conquest — but a specifically moral justification for its planned actions does not lie easily to hand.

    So the powerful nation embarks on a course designed to make life intolerable for the country and/or those people that stand in its way. The more powerful nation is confident that, given sufficient time and sufficient provocation, the weaker country and people will finally do something that the actual aggressor can seize on as a pretext for the policy upon which it had already decided. In this way, what then unfolds becomes the victim’s fault.

    And so it goes, and on it goes: the curse of violence, hatred, estrangement, fear. Madness snaking in and out of the only place where the universe is: in the electrics of our brains.”

    link to chris-floyd.com

    Those whose brains are on fire about the slaughter of innocent children in Gaza by a right-wing ‘racist’ Israeli government should take a close look at this child killed in the vast and ever expanding area of Droneland by the recently re-elected liberal ‘non-racist’ US government:

    link to chris-floyd.com

    • edwin
      November 26, 2012, 9:07 am

      Israel has not always been under the sphere of the US. I think that it is a mistake to assume that the US is the be-all and end all for Israel foreign policy.

      Singling out Israel is anti-semitic, isn’t it?

      In the same way that singling out South Africa was racist.

    • American
      November 26, 2012, 12:10 pm

      ‘Singling out Israel is anti-semitic, isn’t it? In my view, the tiresome moral outrage of Americans, Jewish or not, about the allegedly singular callousness of Israel/Israelis killing innocent children is nothing but projection and deflection, and especially rife among American liberals. They can’t do a damn thing about their country behaving worse than Israel, no matter for whom they vote, so they are pointing fingers at Israel, demanding, absurdly, that Obama must get Israel in line with ‘American values’, liberal values, Christian values, international law, and what not. I hate to burst your bubble, and you can shoot the messenger as long and hard as you want, but Israel has always been in line with what the US has very consistently PRACTISED, not PREACHED, for the past 2 centuries and longer:”

      O.K., we will quit being outraged…….will that be less tiring to you? I hate to burst your and Floyd’s bubble but our own evilness not news to us. Israel is not our whipping boy and not singled out ‘entirely’ because of our frustration with our own country. Israel-I/P is more the standard bearer, a rallying cry for everything we see wrong and inhumane about the US. That the US has been a violent, greedy, hubris, driven murderer in it’s own special interest on its’ own behalf is bad enough, but when it allows and fosters it for Israel where there is no profit interest to be satisfied or hubris benefit to the US, only a trade of political money and support in return for some other people’s blood spilling…well then, that takes it to a even higher level of evil and sickness within the US. Maybe you don’t get that.

    • tree
      November 26, 2012, 1:46 pm

      No, “singling out Israel”, (a hasbara term if ever there was one) which really just means “to criticize Israeli policies and actions”, is not anti-semitic.

      And you mostly have it backwards about US “progressives”. They are more likely to condemn US actions and remain silent on, or even speak approvingly of, Israeli actions.

      This is from the Chris Floyd piece published right before the one you cited above, entitled “Gag Rule on Gaza”:

      Taking these justifications point by point, here, as I understand it, is the essential argument for progressives remaining silent on the slaughter in Gaza.

      1) We are scared. People might call us bad names, and that would be unpleasant. And it would also, somehow, interfere with our ability to support other causes. Do you want us to be like that fool Martin Luther King Jr., who didn’t stick to his niche issue of civil rights but also took on murderous American militarism and economic injustice? That’s not savvy, that’s not how to get things done. Anyway, look what happened to him when he stuck his neck out too far.

      2) We are childish. There are no “good guys” we can root for in a comic-book version of good vs. evil. [How about rooting for the innocent people being slaughtered? Are they not "good" enough?] Also, we are too uninterested to read of any context or history beyond the day’s headlines, so we have no idea about the many efforts made by Hamas and others, including Israelis, to “prevent rockets from being fired at Israeli civilians.” We also have nothing to say about Israel’s endless provocations — killing children, blockades, assassinations, etc. — that produce the missiles fired in retaliation. In short, because the institutional leaders on both sides are morally compromised individuals instead of clearly marked good guys and bad guys, we have nothing at all to say about innocent people being killed — in our name, with American weaponry, American money and the full support of the president we have just worked so hard to re-elect.

      3) We are helpless. You should only blog about things you can “theoretically” do something about. So apparently there is nothing anyone can ever do — even “theoretically” — to prevent the United States government from giving its full and unstinting support to the ongoing operation in Gaza. Even though George W. Bush himself condemned Israeli “extrajudicial assassinations,” even though Ronald Reagan condemned the Israeli strike on Iraq’s nuclear plant (and actually suspended arms shipments to Israel in protest), it is now completely impossible for anyone, anywhere, to put the slightest pressure on Barack Obama to voice even the mildest criticism of Israel’s actions. So what’s the point of using one’s public platform to register even the smallest complaint about one’s government using its money, weapons and full political muscle to support the slaughter of innocent people?

      However, it must be theoretically possible to, say, convince Barack Obama not to sign a “grand bargain” that will gut social programs and entrench brutal economic and social injustice for generations. And how does one do that? By writing about it, agitating about it, talking about it, protesting against it, and so on — as our leading progressives do every day. And even though the record of the past four years shows that Barack Obama does not pay the slightest attention to these efforts — and has recently reiterated that the $4 trillion economy-wrecking, society-degrading “deal” he offered Republicans earlier is “still on the table” — it is at least theoretically possible that strenuous protest and pressure might cause some alteration of policy.

      I think this is true. And I think it’s an effort worth making, however slight its chance of success. But why does this not also apply to Obama’s policy toward Israel and the Middle East? Instead of the gritty realism, savvy tactics and nuanced analyses we see on the Grand Bargain, on Gaza all we get are childish, cartoonish exaggerations: the idea that even criticising Israeli actions — as George Bush did, as Ronald Reagan did — is somehow equivalent to “abandoning Israel” and the Jewish people. This is puerile nonsense. (It is also an example of the aforementioned “incoherent, hateful backlash” in action, albeit in more muted, tasteful form. But it carries the same implication: “What, do you want us to abandon the Jewish people, drive them from their only refuge? What are you, some kind of Nazi?”)

      Look, people can concentrate on whatever issues they want. I do it; everyone who writes does it. I just found it remarkable — and still do — that several prominent liberal bloggers dedicated to analyzing American policy and politics had nothing at all to say about innocent people being slaughtered with the full support — physical, financial and political — of the American political establishment, which is the focus of their blogs. Not a single word on the subject — positive, negative, even in passing — nothing at all, day after day, death after death.

      link to chris-floyd.com

      And all you are doing is attempting to reinforce that silence, thus doing the very thing that you accuse others of doing.

      I have yet to find someone in the US who is critical of Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank who is not just as critical of brutal US actions abroad. on the other hand, I’ve met far too many PEPs, progressive except on Palestine. Is that what you want?

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