Indeed, if numbers mean anything in the new Gaza War, for those who like to keep morbid track of where things stand, or rather, where they fall, those numbers are rising rapidly. A few more days at this rate and the Gaza War will earn an honorable mention in the hall of infamy, alongside the other wars fought between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Since the start of the conflict, now in its 17th day, nearly 900 Palestinians and about 10 Israeli soldiers have been killed. But what do the numbers mean, if anything? And does anyone outside the affected area really care?
The answer is yes, some people do care. Tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated over the weekend in London, Paris, Berlin and several other European cities, decrying the Israeli assault on Gaza. In London protesters gathered outside the Israeli Embassy, waved Palestinian flags and demanded an immediate end to Israel's military strikes on Gaza. The demonstrators -- many of them British Muslims and left-leaning political groups, held up huge banners condemning the attacks as a "crime against humanity."
While the war in Gaza is very much front-page news in the Middle East and is airing non-stop across the Arab airwaves, there remains a failure among Middle Easterners to understand the lack of compassion from many Western leaders for the Palestinians.
The number of Palestinians killed now stands at about a third of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.
But to the rest of the world those deaths are simply numbers. Numbers that one reads in a newspaper, numbers heard in a news update on television, or yet more numbers picked up on the Internet.
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin got it right when he said, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."
The death toll in Gaza may not be anywhere near the million deaths Stalin was referring to, but it is nevertheless a statistic. And an ugly one at that. Yesterday it was 600 deaths. Today it is 900. Tomorrow that number may well rise to 1,000 or more. But who is really counting?
And at what point does it become no longer acceptable to continue bombarding a civilian population? Two thousand deaths? Double that number? Again, those are numbers. Statistics. Does the rest of the world care? Maybe 3,000 deaths? And at what point does it become no longer acceptable to carry out military operations while endangering the very people you were meant to protect?
Unless the fighting stops within the next day or so, the Gaza War will have the sad distinction of having claimed the most lives among civilians. And in any case, regardless of the outcome of the Gaza debacle, this recent war will go down as one of the most sanguinary in the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict because the casualties are mostly civilians. In term of pure numbers, in terms of statistics, it is beginning to earn its place in the record books.
As a comparison, Egypt lost the most men in the June 1967 war, suffering about 10,000 fatalities. Israel lost 776. But those were military.
During the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel, one estimate placed the number of casualties at around 17,825 Lebanese. Estimates as to the breakdown between civilians and military differ. Beirut's daily An-Nahar newspaper counted 5,515 people, both military and civilian, killed in the Beirut area only during the conflict, while 9,797 military personnel (Palestine Liberation Organization, Syrian and others) and 2,513 civilians were killed outside the Beirut area. Approximately 675 Israeli soldiers were killed.
But then again, those are just numbers. Really who's counting? As Stalin said, "Statistics."
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington.)