For sixteen years, Israel has maintained a blockade of the Gaza Strip. In that time, thousands of people in the densely populated prison-territory have been killed by Israeli Defense Force bombs, in retribution for rockets fired into Israel by Hamas. The number of deaths suffered by Palestinians in the course of these violent exchanges is grossly disproportionate to Israeli deaths. Last Saturday marked one of the grimmest episodes in the conflict, and one which momentarily flipped these figures on their head. Members of Hamas killed well over a thousand Israelis, mostly civilians, in a single day of horrific bloodletting. Yet in the days following that attack, even before a predicted IDF ground assault, the number of Palestinians who have died in Gaza at the hands of Israeli forces has already outstripped the dead of the Hamas massacre. And it is only the beginning. The Israeli government has ordered over a million people in northern Gaza to evacuate, with twenty-four hours’ notice. A UN spokesperson said this “impossible” order will have “devastating humanitarian consequences.”
Accounting for the dead in this way seems obscene. Each tally mark is a life snuffed out. But there is an important reason to state it clearly: because states capable of immense violence do not. The Israeli government possesses such violent capabilities, and its leaders speak in openly genocidal terms. Their aims of annexation and expulsion predate last weekend’s Hamas assault, which they now use as yet another justification for these goals.
In the United States, we are intimately familiar with how the shock of mass civilian death can feed deadly political ambitions. Or at least, we should be. Almost three thousand people died in the attacks on 9/11; millions died in the wars that the U.S. government subsequently unleashed in the Middle East and Central Asia. To the American government, the millions matter far less than the thousands. For the blood-soaked nationalists of the Republican Party, this is no surprise. For Democrats who speak a pseudo-universalist language, it is damning.
Now, as Palestinians in Gaza brace themselves for violence on an even grander scale, elected leaders across the United States are in nearly complete lockstep offering full support for whatever military operations the Israeli government is about to undertake. To Palestinians, the message is clear: your lives matter less, if they matter at all. This consensus is only being challenged on the margins of our political discourse. But it is imperative to continue to challenge it.
Right now, there is real despair, and fierce disagreement, among those who hope for a peaceful political settlement that establishes Palestinian sovereignty after more than half a century of military occupation. Palestinian freedom can only be seen at a distant horizon, which only seems farther off after this past week, and the path ahead is littered with more dead. But the most immediate goal is obvious: to stop the destruction of Gaza—and to let those who are enabling the slaughter know that we are keeping count.
Nick Serpe is senior editor at Dissent.