Counting the Gaza Dead: False equivalences, distorted dichotomies

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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.

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.

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