Braving bitter cold, tens of thousands marched in London last weekend to protest against Israel’s attack on Gaza. Brought together by the Stop the War Coalition, the demonstrators wanted an immediate ceasefire. There were anti-Israel protests elsewhere in the world. Given the media coverage, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might seem to be the most devastating conflicts in the world today.
This coalition judiciously chooses the wars it opposes. It was formed on 21 September 2001 to oppose the US-led military response following the attacks in the US 10 days earlier. Not surprisingly, the coalition has taken up the Palestinian cause. As causes go, Palestine succeeds in bringing together a wide range of activists, its appeal matching the anti-apartheid movement at one time. Tibetan or Burmese activists can only marvel at the Palestinian ability to draw crowds.
To be sure, Israel’s recent incursion—or invasion—can be faulted on many grounds. Nearly 400 Palestinians have died, many of them civilians. According to B’tselem, the well-regarded Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, between October 2000 and November last year, Israeli security forces killed 4,781 Palestinians in the “occupied territories” (Israeli civilians have killed 45 Palestinians. During the same period, Palestinians killed 237 Israeli civilians in the “occupied territories” and 490 in Israel, and 335 Israeli security personnel, 90 of them on Israeli soil).
Even armed conflict has laws, and armies are required by law to avoid killing non-combatants. Civilians must be protected for moral and legal reasons because, as humanitarian expert Hugo Slim explains in his thought-provoking book, Killing Civilians, civilians “must somehow be set apart from the fury of battle because of who they are, what they do, or what they cannot do…(in the end we need) compassion which asks people to identify with their enemies to some degree…because they are like us.”
Which is why the demonstrators’ selective compassion is perplexing. Leave aside the eye-for-an-eye logic of the number of Israeli and Palestinian deaths, or the macabre book keeping which balances the firing of some 6,000 wayward Kasam rockets against the pin-point accuracy of F-16s.
Let us look at the numbers.
According to B’tselem’s records, about 48 Palestinian civilians die every month. That’s 48 too many. Now, let us turn to the two other wars preoccupying the protesters—Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Iraq Body Count, which keeps track of civilian casualties in Iraq since 2003, documented deaths in Iraq stand at 98,521, or about 1,400 per month. In Afghanistan, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan estimates 1,445 civilian deaths last year, or 120 a month.
That does not quite make Iraq the mother of all wars. Think of another conflict, which rarely gets attention—in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to the International Rescue Committee, some 5.4 million (yes, million) people have died since 1998 in a war over territory and resources that has spawned 25 militias and brought eight foreign armies on its soil. This is the deadliest conflict since World War II, and has led to 45,000 civilian deaths per month. That’s nearly 30 times more than Iraq, and many multiples more than the Israel-Palestine conflict. A Lancet study shows that Congo has “the highest relative risk of death” related to conflict.
Where are the marchers opposing the conflict in Congo?
The DRC is not an exception. Think of Sudan where, despite the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement between the south and the north, tensions continue, and the relative calm in the south is replaced by state-supported Janjaweed (armed brigands) going after civilians and rebels in Darfur. In the past 17 years, according to the US Committee for Refugees, two million people have died and another four million displaced.
Hollywood celebrities have brought some attention to Sudan. Congo, however, remains an orphan in the compassion sweepstakes. In these African conflicts, unlike in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine, there are few Western targets to criticize. There is a scramble for minerals in the DRC, and for oil in Sudan, but as Lydia Polgreen’s reports in The New York Times showed, Malaysia is buying looted tin in the DRC, while the oil companies active in Sudan are from China and India.
The peace marchers are right in pointing out the disproportionate numbers in civilian deaths in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But what accounts for their silence over the far bloodier outrages elsewhere? Or are we to conclude that some deaths are more important than other deaths, and accept the Stalinesque epigram that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths, a statistic?
Then let them march, but not in my name.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org