While it may be tempting for those of us who are against Operation Protective Edge to stress the lopsided casualty statistics as a way to promote our criticism, this war should not focus on the numbers.
One of the most painfully obvious aspects of the current warfare between Israel and Gaza (and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a whole) is the stark disparity in the number of casualties: 1,928 Palestinians killed compared with 67 Israelis, based on the latest figures recorded by each side. Both the Hamas-run Ministry of Health in Gaza and the UN claim the majority are civilians, whereas Israel claims that around half are militants and thus legitimate targets. Regardless of what numbers one subscribes to, no one can deny Palestinians are the winners (read: losers) when it comes to numbers. Yet they nonetheless remain the subject of intense debate.
Recent articles in both the BBC and the New York Times call attention to the accuracy the death toll. Both articles question the credibility of the numbers provided by Hamas and human rights groups on the ground, which many (myself included) often quote, as they are the only official numbers publicized. No official Israeli government body has provided final numbers on the outcome of its strikes in real time, and there is no other body doing so. The BBC report specifically cites over-representation of adult male civilian casualties as evidence that challenges the notion that Israeli strikes in Gaza have been indiscriminate.
The growing death toll and its composition (civilian vs. militant, child vs. adult, male vs. female) are a prominent feature of the media coverage, seemingly to provide the bare facts about the war. Twitter has been full of photos of dead Palestinian children and regular updates on the alarming number of casualties in Gaza, alongside those who tweet the number of rockets launched in a given day into Israel, or the number of Israeli citizens under sirens and forced into bomb shelters.
While accurate tallying of casualties and documentation of means of warfare is a critical and integral part of reporting in any war, it is not the main story of this Gaza conflict. While it may be tempting for those of us who are against “Operation Protective Edge” in particular and Israeli policy in general to stress the lopsided casualty statistics as a way to promote our criticism, this war should not be analyzed in quantity but rather in quality. Hamas clearly has an interest in showing a high number of civilian casualties, while Israel has an interest in showing that it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian deaths (and that when they do happen, they are Hamas’s fault). Each has its narrative and the average news consumer can easily find numbers that best suit their views while denying the credibility of those that don’t. Besides, speaking about the conflict in numbers inevitably cheapens the value of each and every human life.
The story of the current warfare, like all other confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians in recent decades, is the context of the quality of life here. As Noam Sheizaf wrote in his recent piece, there is a perennial status quo in which Jews have full rights between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean while Palestinians are divided into sub groups with differing sets of rights depending on where they live. “It is an inherently unjust order, and it will continue to create instability and to cast serious doubts over the legitimacy of the entire system,” Sheizaf writes. In such a situation, “violence is a by-product” that will continue its vicious cycle, and considering Israel’s military positioning and ability to act with impunity, the losses will continue to be greater on the Palestinian side.
In such a miserable cycle, does it really matter at the end of the day what the precise breakdown of the casualties are in a given confrontation? If there is in fact a significant number of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives among the dead, will that bring an end to the threat of rocket fire from Gaza? If in fact two-thirds of those killed are innocent civilians, will that bring Gaza closer to freedom and dignity?
A seasoned IDF officer was recently asked on Israeli news how this conflict is different from previous ones. His response says it all: “The date.”