Resorting to ‘comparative suffering’ will do the Jewish state no good

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Even though Israel abundantly uses live bullets, missiles and booby-trap bombs, leaving actual stones for Palestinian children to defend themselves against jets and tanks, the adage that it lives in a glass house but still throws stones is nonetheless applicable.

After decades of using every tool in the public relations book, and inventing a few of their own, Israelis are feeling invulnerable, believing they have successfully hypnotized the world with their propaganda. Judging by the increased backing that their regular allies are giving them, they cannot be faulted for believing that. Of course, there have been more Israeli casualties than usual in the past two weeks; and of course, this is why the world is in an uproar.

Israel has now publicly been given the green light by its strongest ally to deal with the Palestinian uprising in the way it sees fit, something which it had been doing all along anyway. The European Union, which had been somewhat more even-handed than the United States, now demands the “dismantling of Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s terrorist networks, including the arrest and prosecution of all suspects,” and an end to the “armed intifada against Israel.” Is the EU implying that unarmed resistance is acceptable? Is it suggesting hunger strikes, perhaps, or sit-ins in front of the embassies of neutral countries?

As if sensing that stopping the “armed intifada” -é on its own -é would not bring the Palestinian people their rights, the EU did remember, perhaps as an afterthought at the insistence of French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine (and in spite of Britain’s and Germany’s reluctance), to request “the withdrawal of Israel’s military forces, a stop to extra-judicial executions, the lifting of closures and of all restrictions imposed on the Palestinian people, and a freeze on settlements.” An indirect acknowledgement, at least, that there are legitimate reasons for the intifada.

In spite of the EU’s new tough stance on the intifada, Israeli reactions were not enthusiastic, the least critical of all being that of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Although he considered the statement to be “balanced,” he simultaneously scoffed at it, saying it was “easy for countries that don’t have the same problems to give advice.” He is right: none of the 15 members of the EU are currently militarily occupying the land of other people.

Peres did find the terrorism reference adequate, deeming it a “right decision, particularly since Sept. 11.” This is an indication of the selective importance that will be given to the EU’s demands: Israel will choose the requests it finds suitable, and continue repeating to the world that it is an innocent casualty of terrorism. The milking of the Sept. 11 tragedy goes on, with the blessings of New York’s top three VIPs (Governor George Pataki, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg), who did not once mention the word “Palestinian” during their solidarity tour of Jerusalem on Sunday.

For the skeptics who still question Israel’s self-claimed status of victim, a new strategy presenting “comparative suffering” is presently in top gear. (Israeli Jewish suffering, that is, for there is no such thing as Palestinian suffering according to Israel.) In their latest campaign, Israeli officials (immediately mimicked by sympathetic media) would now have us know that the 25 victims of the suicide bombs in Jerusalem and Haifa last week would be equivalent to 1,600 American victims (or 2,000 according to Sharon who has no time to waste on mathematics), when considering the sizes of the respective populations.

This is an interesting concept. Comparative numbers, equations and statistics are wonderful instruments: they are so great that their proper exploitation is not a science, but an art. As all marketing and communication professionals know, you can make numbers say anything you want, just as you can also use slogans and word association tactics to make these numbers even more significant. The horror of the death of 25 people becomes lost in algebra, so that Israeli PR can pick up a few more points in opinion polls. With this exercise, Israelis contribute to their ultimate goal of discrediting Palestinian grievances, and of making Palestinian suffering over the past decades intangible, distant, irrelevant.

This is to forget that two can play that game. Since the same media reporting on the above “comparative suffering” has not evoked it, let us consider what the number of Palestinian victims in 14 months of intifada would equate in American or British terms. Taking a US population of 285 million, a UK population of 59 million, and a Palestinian population of 3 million in the Occupied Territories, the 860 Palestinians killed as of this writing would be equal to nearly 82,000 American and about 17,000 British casualties.

If that isn’t alarming enough, the number of injured is also chilling. Some 17,000 injured Palestinians works out to over 1.6 million Americans and 334,000 Britons. In the same manner, one can only imagine how high the number of Palestinians made homeless after their houses were razed by Israeli bulldozers would be, relative to America or Britain. Or the number of uprooted Palestinian olive trees, which would probably compare to whole forests. Or the number of unemployed Palestinians under siege, which at the most conservative estimates would compare to over 100 million Americans and 20 million Britons left with neither job nor income. For every imaginary statistic Israel throws around, there are a hundred others that Palestinians can exhibit.

The numbers game, an easy exercise, might induce more people to think about the Palestinian tragedy if they imagined suffering of this magnitude on their own turf. But human suffering should be unacceptable on its own, without resorting to cross-referencing. Would the deaths of 4,000 innocents on Sept. 11 be any less horrific if they were considered in Palestinian terms (43)? This is what the warped Israeli rationale would imply.

Israel will go to any length and use any tactic to escape its responsibility for the suffering of 3 million Palestinians under occupation. The number of Palestinian victims increases not by the day, but by the hour: the death toll of 860 stated only a few paragraphs above has again risen by at least six as I write. Who is Israel fighting? Who is it killing? Who threatens its security? The description of two of the latest Palestinian victims can perhaps answer the questions of those who fear for Israel’s safety: a 3-year old toddler and a 13-year old boy, who were incinerated inside the cars they were riding by an Israeli helicopter missile.

Why does the world ignore Palestinian deaths and only seem to notice the no-less-horrible deaths of Israelis? Is it because the art of semantics, in addition to that of comparative suffering, is exploited so expertly by Israel? Indeed. Israel always claims it is “retaliating,” “returning fire,” “striking back,” and generally acting in “self-defense” against miscellaneous “Islamic radicals” and “people engaged in terrorist activity” (which plays well to a post-Sept. 11 audience prepared by President Bush’s you’re-with-us-or-against-us monologue).

Actually, Israel’s “terrorists” range from the multitude of children throwing stones to a few suicide bombers. And the Palestinian death toll needs no cross-referencing to be horrific by any standard. Irrespective of the PR tools used by the Israeli propaganda machine, it is time the international community noticed the disparity in its treatment of Palestinians and Israelis; a real comparison of suffering between the two would not be to the latter’s’ advantage.

Rime Allaf is a writer and specialist in Middle East affairs. She is also a consultant in international communications and new economy business.

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