At the time of writing this piece, the death toll in Gaza has crossed 8,000. But of course, the number cannot be taken at face value. In this regard, I agree with the United States (US) President’s recent press interaction where he cast doubt on the numbers being reported out of Gaza. I share President Biden’s lack of confidence that these numbers are accurate. However, I differ with him in the reasoning that is sparking doubt about these numbers.
Gaza’s Ministry of Health, in an apparent response to President Biden’s remarks, published a detailed list of all the documented deaths, including the names, ages, ID numbers, and gender of the deceased. At that time, the death toll was over 6,000. I am unaware if this abated the White House’s contentions with the figures or not. The United Nation’s endorsement of the Health Ministry’s casualty reports in past clashes notwithstanding, I remain firmly sceptical of the figures. Between the publication of the list and now, Israel enforced a total communications blackout on the besieged strip and intensified its assault on Gaza with boots on the ground. Bear in mind, that Gaza is one of the world’s most densely populated spots, with roughly 2.3 million Palestinians in less than 400 square kilometres. Approximately 6,507 people per square kilometre were subjected to explosive power greater than that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Of course, this cannot possibly be a correct estimation of the number of dead.
In order to have a realistic sense of death tolls in mass-casualty events, ministries of health often coordinate with hospitals receiving the injured or the Dead on Arrival (DOA), the morgues holding bodies of those who have not been claimed or are not yet buried, and the teams conducting rescue and recovery in the field. It takes meticulous reporting, recovery, identification, transfer, confirmation, coordination, and communication. It takes hospitals, doctors, information management systems, forensic workers, and rescue teams. It takes all of this and more in a stable and functioning environment to provide any sense of accuracy in calculating the death toll in mass-casualty events of such a scale. Therefore, Gaza’s current situation does not allow one to accept the reported figures as exhaustively representative.
Since the beginning of the Nakba, Palestinian life has been robbed of dignity. But this new wave of apathy from Israel and its allies, will not even allow them dignity in death.
While the initial death toll could have been credibly close to what the Palestinian Health Ministry reported, as the days go by, a large number of deaths will continue to go unreported. Add to that, the 1,500 or so trapped under rubble. Whether they are all dead or some have survived to experience the rain of death from under the dust and concrete that they once called home, is hard to say. Volunteers in recovery teams say they find some trapped alive, but they can only claw out so much life from under the debris, with the lack of equipment and fuel to power heavy machinery. On top of that, disruption in communication is bound to have caused issues in reporting and recording the rising death toll. And what of those who were killed on their way to “safety” after Israel allowed them an exceptionally brief window to leave their homes which were no longer safe for them? And those who cannot be contacted, are they missing, dead, or both? Truth is, the volume of death can only be ascertained after hostilities have ended. It might take days, weeks, or even months to confirm, but one thing is for sure, it will not be a number that any conscientious individual can digest with any measure of ease.
One must admit though, that there is a certain poetry to the cycles of misinformation, disinformation and rebuttals doing rounds in headlines and social media trends right now. That Palestinians have jumped through hoops and put their grief and sorrow on display for Western media to prove their right to life and their inherent humanity, is evident from it all. But to expect the dead to do the same and affirm their violent removal from the earth—to borrow from Gen-Z vernacular— “hits differently.” Especially when you consider how easily President Joe Biden endorsed to the world, unverified claims of beheaded babies in the illegally settled kibbutzim.
Since the beginning of the Nakba, Palestinian life has been robbed of dignity. But this new wave of apathy from Israel and its allies, will not even allow them dignity in death. The overflowing morgues, the dismembered bodies, and the ice cream trucks full of dead bodies are all images from this month alone.
All this while the representative leadership of the US continues their repeated appeals to respect for international humanitarian law. A set of laws and conventions that govern the conduct of warfare and place at its centre two things: reducing civilian suffering, and upholding the dignity of all affected by war—whether direct participants or impartial casualties. And this set of laws applies not just to the living, but also to the dead. Pray tell then, how do you appeal for the dignity of the dead among a people who have been relegated to a most undignified manner of life?
Dignity is not a privilege Palestinians enjoy, in life or in death.