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The unspoken toll across the border

For the sake of our own humanity, it’s imperative we see the humanity of those suffering on the other side
Palestinians look for survivors after an Israeli strike in the Gaza Strip, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. (AP/Fatima Shbair)
Palestinians look for survivors after an Israeli strike in the Gaza Strip, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

In the relentless drumbeat of headlines, Israeli media has become entranced by numbers — the over 1,200 people brutally murdered on October 7, the 242 people taken hostage by Hamas, the dozens of soldiers killed in battle since the ground invasion, the well over 100,000 Israelis displaced from their homes. Our land, steeped in history, has become an arena where numbers take center stage, each digit a haunting reminder of lives cut short and families shattered.

Yet, absent from the numerical calculations are the figures for the lives extinguished on the other side. Every major Israeli news site paints a detailed picture of the pain and suffering within our borders, but emits only silent echoes of the devastation reverberating beyond them.

The numbers of Palestinians killed in Gaza are reported occasionally, but they are usually buried in articles about the military operation. There are few headlines highlighting those whose lives have been lost. There are no-push notifications or counters, slowly ticking up as reports come in.

There are indeed understandable and justifiable reasons for reticence. In the murky realm of conflict, Hamas has not only wielded deadly weapons but also employed a sinister arsenal of misinformation. The evidence is glaring, pointing to a deliberate distortion of facts and manipulation by the terrorist organization. The numbers touted by the Gaza Health Ministry under Hamas control stand on shaky ground, tainted by a consistent pattern of cynical misinformation. From staged incidents to altered casualty figures and the insidious use of propaganda, Hamas has woven a web of deceit that erodes the very foundation of trust in their reported data.

Furthermore, Hamas doesn’t just manipulate facts; they callously incorporate killed terrorists into their reported numbers as well as those killed by their own errant rockets, further twisting the narrative and the ability to conceptualise the true loss of civilian life.

Perhaps most significantly, in a disgusting display of disregard for all human life, Hamas not only distorts facts but heartlessly deploys the people of Gaza as human shields. As Israel makes clear efforts to avoid civilian casualties, Hamas attempts to increase them. This despicable tactic adds an horrifying layer to the tragedy, as innocent lives are intentionally put in harm’s way.

There is, therefore, no moral comparison, let alone equivalence between the deaths on each side. Every death is a tragedy, but equality of tragedy does not imply equality of culpability.

As we attempt to fathom the toll of this chaos, the distorted information and abysmal Hamas tactics not only shatter trust in reported numbers but also create a barrier. The emotional connection, essential for understanding the human cost of conflict, is eroded by Hamas’s calculated web of emotional deception and callous manipulation, leaving a scar on the empathy we strive to feel for those who have lost their lives.

But, justifiable or not, understandable or not, the absence of Palestinian deaths displayed in Israeli media belies a detachment that threatens our ability to face the tragedy head on. The dismissal of Hamas’ numbers ultimately act as a shield, allowing us not to engage with any reported number and sparing us the raw reality of the human toll just kilometers away.

Does the absence, perhaps, obscure a dissonance that has quietly evolved over decades? Could it be fostering a narrative that inadvertently portrays the Palestinian population as anonymous adversaries, unintentionally diminishing their deaths? Might the mental barricades, strengthened by over fifty years of separation, cast a veil over our shared consciousness, enabling us to look away from the suffering experienced on the opposing side of the fence? And, has the relentless pursuit of “us” versus “them” numbed us to the ability to feel empathy?

As a Zionist Jew born in the Diaspora, who chose 18 years ago to make my life in Israel, serve as a combat soldier in the IDF, and dedicate my life to the future of the Jewish state, I too feel a temptation to put this moral maze aside as we fight to secure the security of our homeland and its people. Like news editors and producers, I too am conflicted about confronting the numbers. And I am aware that my writing may not be popular and may be misconstrued as a call to stop fighting. It is not. It is a plea to stand against the dehumanization perpetuated by our enemies and to rise above them by embracing the moral imperative of empathy that they so lack.

To retain our humanity, even, and perhaps especially, as we we fight against Hamas for the sake of it, we must ascend above indifference. The numbers of Palestinians killed by Israeli strikes are not mere statistics but a testament to lives extinguished and families fractured. That is true even as Gaza’s population is being cynically and disgracefully used by Hamas as civilian shields. And that is true whether 10,000 Palestinians have been killed or ten.

In Genesis, when Jacob prepares to meet, and potentially battle, his estranged brother Esau, the Torah tells us that Jacob “was deeply frightened and was distressed.” Rashi offers an insight into Jacob’s psyche. The medieval biblical commentator quotes a midrash which states that “Jacob was afraid of being killed and was distressed that he himself might have to kill.”

The depth of Jacob’s moral struggle is profound. Rashi reveals a dimension of Jacob’s concern that goes beyond the legality of self-defense. Jacob’s apprehension is not about the permissibility of taking a life in the face of life-threatening danger, as Jewish law allows for such measures. Rather, it is a profound unease about the irreversible transformation that the act of killing may inflict upon the one who commits it.

Jacob grapples with the moral and spiritual consequences, fearing that the act will leave him with indelible scars. His reluctance to become a killer stems not from a fear of legal repercussions but from an understanding of the lasting impact such an action can have on the essence of one’s being. But his ability to recognize the fear and the challenge it presented did not translate into a reluctance to fight. Immediately after expressing Jacob’s fear, the Torah tells of his preparations to face Esau head on and his enigmatic night time fight with the angel in which he “struggled with God and men and prevailed.”

We too must confront our moral struggle. Only through acknowledging the humanity on both sides of the divide can we hope to shed indifference and forge a path towards understanding. In the echo-chamber of conflict, shared humanity can transcend borders, bringing forth an opportunity for genuine moral leadership.

It will require a courageous reevaluation of our perspectives and a commitment to hearing the silent echoes that reverberate beyond our immediate purview. But, like Jacob, it will leave us strengthened, not weakened; empowered, not helpless; and more committed to truth, not unintentionally ambivalent towards it.

* * *

At the time of writing, 11,078 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the Gaza war on October 7, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry (though that number cannot be verified, and Hamas is known to inflate and conflate the numbers of those killed).

About the Author
Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.
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