Here’s Why We Need To Rethink Compassion

By almost all accounts, the recent conflict in Gaza and its high resulting death toll—which has risen over to over 600 in two weeks of fighting—has been tragic. Unfortunately, these numbers are not unusual for today’s international conflicts. Syria, for example, witnessed over 700 deaths in just 48 hours of fighting last week. In May, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the total death toll had already climbed over 160,000. This number included over 50,000 civilians and more than 8,000 children. Yet Syria has gradually disappeared from headlines after the US agreed last year not to conduct air strikes in return for President Assad’s promise to destroy his chemical weapons supplies.

We have also been bombarded with stories about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was allegedly shot down by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, but many people might not know that the death toll from Ukraine’s conflict had already risen to over 2,000 before the crash including around 500 civilians. And in Syria, activists claim that the death toll is currently over 160,000. Fewer still are familiar with the conflicts in South Sudan or the Central African Republic, which have claimed thousands of lives in recent months, including large numbers of civilians.

So why has Gaza garnered much more attention than all of these places, each of which has been overall much bloodier? Stories about Operation Protective Edge have been plastered all over mainstream news outlets. #GazaUnderAttack has been used in nearly 4 million twitter posts and #IsraelUnderFire in nearly 200,000. Videos of bombings and artillery fire have been posted all over YouTube while pictures of dead children are constantly shared on Facebook.

Gaza’s increased visibility in the past couple of weeks is in part a result of the US’s strategic interest in Israel, which is by far the biggest recipient of US military aid, totaling about $3 Billion each year. The US is also the only country with a larger Jewish population than Israel. At least two Americans fighting for the Israeli Defense Forces have been killed in the past week. And the US is now home to around 1.8 million Arab-Americans as well, an increase of almost 50% since 2000. However, one event in particular helped put the spotlight on Palestine. Israeli police were caught on video brutally beating a 15-year-old boy named Tariq Khdeir, whom they accused of attacking them, in East Jerusalem. Such an occurrence is probably not uncommon in the Palestinian territories, but Khdeir happened to be an American from Tampa Bay, Florida who was in Jerusalem visiting relatives.

In addition, both Palestinians’ and Israelis’ intentional use of social media has surrounded us with graphic images of violence and suffering. In the poverty-stricken countries of South Sudan and the Central African Republic, reliable internet access is hard to come by, whereas in Syria activists have tried to make use of social media but government censorship and disruption by the Syrian Electronic Army have often made this difficult.

The coverage Gaza has received in the past couple of weeks has had tremendous consequences on the world stage. While we have heard stories of rioting and intense clashes between supporters of the two sides, there has also been a genuine outpouring of sympathy for the innocent victims of the conflict. This is probably little comfort to the people stuck in Gaza, who continue to lose more friends and family members each day. Nevertheless, serious diplomatic negotiations are underway, in large part because of the pressure being placed on the international community. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon flew to Qatar on Monday where he met with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s President Al-Sisi have also been directly involved in negotiations as has US Secretary of State John Kerry. South Sudan and the Central African Republic haven’t attracted such high level diplomatic efforts, while negotiations in Syria and the Ukraine have been marred by disagreements within the UN Security Council. Once a cease-fire is reached in Gaza, hundreds of millions in humanitarian aid will flow into the territory. The US has already pledged $47 million and countries across the Middle East and Europe will likely make contributions as well. It is unlikely that South Sudan and the Central African Republic will receive as much aid as Gaza, despite having populations several times larger, being significantly poorer, and having suffered a lot more bloodshed.

Although Israel benefits greatly from the aid it receives from its American allies, the warm relationship it enjoys with the US is a bit of a double-edged sword. Israeli attacks have been scrutinized far more for their high civilian death tolls than those of any other recent armed conflict. The Ukrainian government is likely responsible for a high number of civilian deaths as well and unlike Israel, Ukraine has not been known to telephone families or fire warning missiles before launching attacks. Yet I haven’t heard any calls for the US to withhold any of the $1Billion aid package to Ukraine that Congress approved in March. Nor has Ukraine been subject to boycotts by multiple countries because of the civilian death toll it’s caused. This incongruity could be attributed partly to the lopsided nature of the conflict in Gaza, but it is also largely because the conflict between Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists simply hasn’t been scrutinized the way Israel’s operation in Gaza has. Meanwhile, the booming blood diamond industry that funds armed groups committing unimaginable atrocities in places like the Central African Republic, has gone largely unnoticed.

It’s natural for us to react more emotionally to violence when we have close connections to the people affected. But we shouldn’t hold double standards when it comes to loss of civilian life. Nor should we ignore tragedies in areas of the world less familiar to us. Perhaps this is a good time to take a critical look at how we react to bloodshed. Maybe our expressions of empathy and our notions of accountability could benefit from some self-reflection. TC mark

featured image – Philip Milne

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