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100 to 1

That’s the approximate ratio of Palestinian to Israeli citizens who were killed in the conflict in the Gaza Strip in…

By Amelia Bellamy-Royds , in The Numbers Game , on February 6, 2009 Tags: , , , ,

That’s the approximate ratio of Palestinian to Israeli citizens who were killed in the conflict in the Gaza Strip in December and January.  So I was a little confused when headlines on Sunday told me that the Prime Minister of Israel was threatening a “disproportionate” response if rocket fire from the region continued.  I would have used that word to describe the violence that has already taken place. 

Rocket attacks were what triggered the Israeli military offensive against the occupied territory starting December 27, 2008.  Cease-fires were declared on January 17 and 18, first by Israel and then by Hamas, the militant group which is also the ruling political party in the Gaza Strip.  Since then, however, sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza have been met with focused bombing by Israeli forces.

The World Health Organization and most media seem to have accepted the Palestinian Ministry of Health’s estimate of at least 1,300 people killed in Gaza during the fighting.  Although independent confirmation of that number is not available, the International Committee of the Red Cross reports that the Palestine Red Crescent Society recovered 750 bodies while helping victims of the bombings.  During the same period, thirteen Israelis were killed – ten soldiers and three civilians.

I have spent the past month writing about numbers in the news.  For the most part, these numbers have had dollar signs attached to them.  Money, even more than usual, is the pre-occupation of the Western world these days.  But some numbers in a news story serve to remind you of how trivial are the day to day worries of us fortunate few.

Every single one of the deaths in Gaza and Israel is a tragedy.  Every bereaved family is unique in their grief, in their particular loss that cannot be countered or balanced by anyone else’s.  But it is in the long distance view that the policies of governments and international organizations are judged.  And it is in the contrast of the numbers that any attestations of Israeli victimhood ring hollow.

Now, one could argue that it is very well for me to talk of right and wrong and proportionality of response from the other side of the world.  I’ve never had to rush to an air raid shelter. I’ve never had friends or family killed by a suicide bomb or rocket.  If I was awakened by a huge explosion on my street, my first assumption would be a natural gas leak.

But at the same time, I’m pretty sure that most people in Israel have not experienced anything compared to the hardships of life in the besieged territory.  Per capita GDP in Gaza is approximately 1/10th of what it is in Israel.  The unemployment rate is nearly seven times higher.

Now, I want to emphasize that I have no intention of being an apologist for Hamas.  It turns my stomach to see its political leaders asking for pity for its fighters and their “simple, home-made rockets.”

But it is not difficult to understand why they have gained such support in the face of the ongoing economic and periodic military attacks on the two Palestinian territories.  And it is not surprising to see that popular support for Hamas has increased in the aftermath of the latest round of violence.

And that is what really makes Israel’s position so difficult to understand.  Forget any moral or humanitarian arguments, and let’s stick to the most pragmatic assessment. The bombing of Gaza may have killed key political leaders who had advocated for violence, and it may have destroyed important infrastructure.  But it did so in a way that only multiplied the greatest asset of any terrorist organization:  a ready supply of aggrieved people wanting retribution.

To try to destroy Hamas by bombing schools and sanctuaries is like trying to kill a Hydra by cutting off its head.  There are 1.5 million people in Gaza, and among them there are now thousands more who have lost a loved one because of Israeli military actions.  Some of those people – hopefully most of them – will react with a strengthened desire for peace and resolution.  But many will react with anger and a desire for vengeance.  Threats of further violence are not likely to calm that reaction.

In the end, it doesn’t matter too much what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says; there is an election in Israel on February 10th, and he is not running.  But the ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence – who have been the main government spokespeople about the conflict – are both leaders of major parties, and will be competing for the PM’s job.

A poll released this week showed that support for the two governing parties has faltered recently.  Is this a sign that citizens reject their government’s military approach to the Gaza dispute?

It does not seem so:  the political parties that are gaining ground in Israel are considered to be even more “hawkish” than the ones they would replace.

An earlier version of this post contained a number of errors.

Some of these can be attributed to a foreigner’s poor grasp of the nuances of Middle East politics. For example, I had described Hamas as the “ruling political party in Palestine”.  While it is true that Hamas won a majority in the most recent parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories, subsequent fighting between supporters of Hamas and of the rival Fatah party ended with Hamas in control of Gaza and Fatah in control of the West Bank.

Even worse – considering the theme of this blog – I twice muddled the key numbers in the story.  Looking back, I can understand why I mis-typed “thirteen hundred” as 13,000 (oops!).  But I have no understanding of how I converted the ratio of thirteen hundred to thirteen into 10 to 1 in my original headline, instead of 100 to 1.

My only explanation is that I wrote the original post late at night, at the end of a long day, and that the quantitative analysis sections of my brain had shut down for the night.  It’s a weak excuse, but it is a reminder of how easy it is for the meaning of numerical information to be completely perverted by a misplaced comma or a missing zero.

As Barbie I’m sure would agree, math is hard.  Especially when you’ve got a 9:30 am deadline and all you want to do is go to sleep.