Gaza is Berning: How Bernie Sanders Helps Us Look at and through Statistics from Israel/Palestine

On April 1, 2016, Bernie Sanders gave the editorial board of the New York Daily News an interview that included one of the most controversial moments of his campaign to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. The cause of the controversy was statistical data that Sanders mentioned during a discussion about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and, more specifically, Israel’s use of what Sanders called “indiscriminate” force during the 2014 Gaza war:

Anybody help me out here, because I don’t remember the figures, but my recollection is over ten thousand innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right?

Since the total number of Palestinians killed in Gaza by Israel during that terrible summer is significantly less than Sanders’s estimate (2,251, according to the United Nations), perhaps Sanders actually meant to refer to the number of Palestinians injured (11,231, according to the same report) rather than killed. Or, maybe, he was trying to talk about the total number of Palestinians killed in Gaza since the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000 (about 6,600, according to the Israeli NGO B’Tselem). In its May 2015 report on the war, Israel disputed these statistics and their subcategories, claiming that “it is unclear on what basis the UN and NGOs calculated their published ratios of militant to civilian fatalities.” Sanders’ confusion provoked a slew of predictable accusations that necessitated a statement by his campaign in an attempt to quell the uproar about him “inflating” the numbers since he is, according to certain detractors, a self-hating Jew.

Having spent the last fifteen months doing fieldwork in Israeli human rights NGOs (hereafter, HROs), I see Sanders’s evocation of imprecise, though telling figures and the disputes around them as an opportunity to observe a conjoined process: the localized, intimate narrativizing of specific deaths and the production of their transformation into transnationally circulatable, nonspecific data (cf. Allen 2006). In/advertently, Sanders’s faux pas (if it was one) provokes us to read numbers differently, to think about the politics of numbers while maintaining that they are not just numbers, but numbers representing death. Death here is simultaneously personal-subjective-familial and a product of several historical nexuses (cf. Khalili 2010): Israel’s colonialism, how it is backed (diplomatically, financially, and otherwise) by the international community, and the humanitarian industry’s historical stake in the area (Feldman 2007), as well as Egypt’s ongoing and complex relationship of sovereignty vis-à-vis Gaza (see Feldman 2008).

HROs are key actors in the political field of data accumulation and dissemination of figures about the occupation and its violence. They frequently contend with the inability and/or unwillingness of Israelis and others to witness Palestinian hardships caused by the occupation, as well as the immense suspicion that information from Palestine/Israel is met with by local and transnational actors (Bishara 2013; Hochberg 2015; Kuntsman and Stein 2015). In the months preceding Sanders’s comment, I had witnessed how these HROs became, at times, almost paralyzed by their own obsessive verification of data. Facing intensifying efforts by politicians and parastate agents to squash any antioccupation dissent, HROs cannot afford to make a single mistake. Both statistical data and witness testimonies go through rigorous cross-checking processes that drain both employees’ energy and organizational resources. Partly by choice and somewhat through inertia, HROs play a mostly adversarial role in the “numeric remembrance” so prominent in Israeli national ethos-building (Zerubavel 2014).

The alliance between HROs and statistics is not entirely natural. Statistics at this scale and of this magnitude are the weapons of the strong, and they obfuscate myriad narratives in favor of simplified numerical accounts. Ostensibly, HROs count on statistics “operating as mediums of common categorization and exchange across diverse systems and modalities” (Erikson 2012, 368). However, in the case of deaths, injuries, destruction, and other tragedies caused by Israel’s war on Gaza, statistics serve a role that is the precise opposite of this mediating function. Israel manipulatively attacks the very relevance and/or credibility of statistics about the results of its own violence, while relying on other related and no less distorted statistical fields (Lustick 2013).

The state of Israel thus uses numbers as a strategic wedge that disqualifies deaths and suffering from serving as data with potentially agentive functions. This strategy is most noticeable in Israel’s aforementioned report on the 2014 war, and specifically in the section on “Palestinian Fatality Figures in the 2014 Gaza Conflict,” which is tellingly placed in an appendix:

. . . neither the total number of Palestinian civilian fatalities, nor a disparity between the number of Israeli and Palestinian fatalities, has direct bearing on the proportionality and legality of IDF operations.

A footnote to this quoted passage begins with the following jargon-heavy explanation:

While neither the overall number of civilian fatalities nor a comparison between the civilian fatalities on each side of a conflict is dispositive in an analysis of a state’s particular use of force during hostilities (jus in bello), these statistics are even less dispositive when conducting an analysis of the proportionality of a state’s resort to the use of force (jus ad bellum).

The radical denial of the relevance of statistics has consistently been Israel’s interpretation of international humanitarian law, echoing formulations put forward during the 2008–2009 war on Gaza. Such logic is pervasive; it is the state’s episteme and is repeatedly presented by its representatives, not only in formal, carefully assembled documents such as this report.

On December 27, 2015, I attended a miniconference about torture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The final speaker was Jana, the person in charge, within the framework of Israel’s Ministry of Justice, of investigating complaints submitted by people detained or interrogated by the Israel Security Agency: in other words, complaints about torture. Speaking for about twenty minutes, Jana responded to a specific statistic repeatedly brought up by the lawyer-activist and HRO employee who had spoken before her, namely the zero criminal or disciplinary proceedings about torture that she had opened in her current role, despite over one thousand complaints filed:

Ever since taking this job, I heard these numbers, first 750 and now 1000 . . . Law and math do not go together hand in hand. I understand that this data attracts the eye and captures the heart, but statistics have no function here.

In the discussion that followed, Jana was confronted about her own personal experience with statistics by Hillel Cohen, a history professor from Hebrew University, who asked her “what is it like going from serving as a military prosecutor and judge in a system with a 95–99 percent conviction rate to a system with zero percent?” Jana’s response further accentuated her attempt to create a radical separation between statistics and law, quantity and justice:

I do not speak in statistics, I speak in cases . . . I’m willing to open each and every file and see what investigatory actions were taken . . . With all due respect, the end result cannot be the only thing that matters . . . These [math and law] are two different disciplines, but eventually we have to talk in the language of criminal justice: evidence.

To paraphrase Jean-François Lyotard (1988), Israel shapes the idiom by not only debunking the truth-value of various statistics, but by eliminating their relevance altogether. When the idiom is international humanitarian law, the potential arbitration of justice is preemptively annulled as there appears to have been no legitimately quantifiable—and thus, affectively and politically viable—damages. Furthermore, the message is that there are no relevant deductions to be made or lessons to be learned based on statistics about the legal system.

Thus, testimony is neutralized and death or violence—no matter if they are individual or collective narratives, no matter their magnitude—are rendered almost completely irrelevant. The state’s defiance of statistics turns our attention back to Sanders’s comment. Rather than insist on the relevance of statistics, we can engage in a performative undermining of the idiomatic dominance of carefully produced and administered numbers. Israel’s refusal to recognize statistics entails not only an occlusion of justice, but also an opening up of a space of a counterhegemonic narrativizing and interpretation of numbers. Furthermore, it also paradoxically reveals the inherent gap between a number and the violent realities it represents (cf. Nath 2014). If numbers still matter, then they matter by virtue of the impasse they carry in their uncanniness.

I will conclude with an example of such a reappropriation of numbers, from the fieldnotes I took while conducting research in an NGO office on December 13, 2015:

I am supposed to crosscheck a table list from another NGO with the table list of this NGO, with names and other details of Palestinians killed in Gaza. When the data department fills the details for each person, they type in the birth and death dates, and the computerized archive program automatically generates their age, rounding it and showing it as a whole number. When someone who died was less than a year old, the number that will appear will be 0, zero years old. At least three of them were actually almost zero years old, born and killed the same day. I can’t stand going through these lists and head to the kitchenette where I meet the researcher who did all the work on these cases. I vent and say that these infant deaths are unbearable to go through, but she takes for granted that she had to do something like check that a baby was actually born before killed. I ask how they retrieved such info, she answers impatiently that the fieldworker in Gaza went around and collected documents and testimonies, and then she and others had to sort it out in the office. I say it is really tough, and she tells me that this wasn’t the most difficult part. What was most difficult, then?

“I wrote a small blurb in Hebrew with info about each one of those who died,” she tells me, “what they were doing when they died. When I finished, I sent it over to the language/website editor, who then sends it back to me so I will translate it to Arabic. Going through these cases one more time, that was the toughest thing . . . I already went through these materials before. There was so much in Gaza. I managed to forget them, I’m beyond the point of caring, but now to go through it again was hell . . . But you know what, as tough as it is, it’s nothing. Some people here think they need therapy just because they have to write these people’s names. It’s embarrassing to be sad about it.”

Embarrassing for whom, I ask. To those who suffer, to those who died, she replies. I say it’s been established that these things have an impact: secondary trauma. She says sure, but still, we shouldn’t be sad or define ourselves as suffering. We are not like those who did suffer. It’s embarrassing.          

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Gabriella Djerrahian, Alejandro Paz, and Marcel LaFlamme, and to Shaun McKinnon for some crucial grammar editing.

References

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