Gaza and the politics of numbers

How powerful is a number? I’ve been writing about the politics and techniques of enumeration for some time now and continue to delve into how the global health and development industries use numbers to advance and justify their work. I am also interested in how people interpret and use various estimates to communicate value(s) and significance. For example, when we hear about the case fatality rate of Ebola in West Africa (90%), or the number of children killed by malaria yearly (millions), we feel informed enough to assess their significance and urgency. That is what these numbers and the people who put these numbers out for our viewing compel us to do.

During this last couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by how numbers have been used to talk about the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Take for example, this excerpt from a report from NBC News about the US “lone soldiers” who fight for the Israeli Defense Forces:

Steinberg, a member of the elite Golani Brigade, was one of 13 Israeli soldiers and scores of Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip over the weekend.  He joined the force six months after he visited the country for the first time on a Birthright Israel trip in the summer of 2012.

While this very short statement raises many questions — about how the language of ‘lone soldier’ masks the US fighter’s role as a mercenary, or how Birthright can be responsible for militarizing notions of belonging — I have a somewhat different aim: to draw attention to the disparate ways that deaths are enumerated. In this mundane and somewhat subtle use of numbers, we see how Palestinian lives are valued — how they count and are counted– in comparison to those of Israeli soldiers in a mainstream US media source.

The number of Israeli soldiers is precisely counted. Palestinians, on the other hand, are an undifferentiated mass; we are told that “scores of Palestinians” were killed in the Gaza Strip. One could argue that death counts for Israeli soldiers are more easily collected because military deaths are part of standard recordkeeping. Accurate and precise body counts are a part of military bureaucratic practices. These soldiers’ deaths, in comparison, are also fewer in number, which makes them easier to count. (This is redundant and telling, but stick with me here). The problem with that argument is that numerous organizations do count Palestinian deaths and publish precise numbers. Certainly, these numbers are conservative estimates because they are often based upon hospital admissions, but surely, the numbers are more precise than “scores,” or multiples of 20. But the politics of counting becomes clear: one must be counted to matter; one must matter enough to be counted.

The question remains: what is at stake for representing the numbers — 13 versus “scores” — this way? Could this use of numbers be purely incidental? I’d like to pose the question another way: if precise numbers of Israeli and Palestinian deaths were placed side-by-side, would people more readily question the disparity between them? Would they assess or rethink how lives are valued in the reporting of the conflict?

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