The Invisible Slaughter of Palestinian Children
Berkeley, Ca. (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – According to our most reliable news sources, the children of Gaza are being slaughtered at a horrific rate. No, you will not find the terms “slaughter” or “horrific” in Western media accounts of Israel’s current assault on the Palestinians residents of Gaza (these terms are reserved for Israeli deaths), but nonetheless, there is little disagreement among media professionals that nearly half of the deaths resulting from Israel’s current assault on Gaza are children, as I write, close to 4000 of them. And the killing of 4000 children by aerial bombardment in the short span of 3 or 4 weeks is nothing if not a horrific and terrible slaughter.
Statements made by politicians or military personnel to mitigate the significance of this number—that Israel is making every possible effort to spare civilian lives, that collateral damage is sadly unavoidable in war, that Hamas is to blame for forcing Israel to defend itself, or, most perversely, Biden’s baseless caution about the numerical accuracy of the data—all of these qualifications seem morally obscene when weighed against the fact that close to 4000 children have been blown to shreds in a few short weeks.
According to the charity, Save the Children, “More children have been killed in the Gaza Strip over the last three weeks than in every other armed conflict annually since 2019.” Whatever viewpoint one may hold in regard to Israel’s military actions in Gaza, in one very real and empirical sense, this has been a war carried out -— to a stunning and unprecedented degree -— on the bodies of children. This, I would argue, is a salient moral fact of the conflict, one that any attempt to come to terms with Israel’s assault necessarily confronts.
Or perhaps not. For when our major news media update us on the results of Israel’s relentless bombing campaign, we hear, not that 100 Palestinian children were crushed in the day’s rubble, a now daily occurrence, but rather, that Israel successfully destroyed more of the “terrorist infrastructure,” that “terror tunnels” were eliminated, that 15 Hamas terrorists were killed by the Israeli Army and Air Force, and so on.
We are presented, in other words, with a narrative that conceals the very slaughter that we know from the available casualty statistics is occurring. The massive carnage in children’s lives -— again, an inescapable moral fact of the conflict, whatever one’s point of view—is replaced by the so-called “war on Hamas,” and presented in a language ever more obedient to Israeli military speak, where protocol seems to demand that every third word in a sentence be “terror” or one of its derivative terms.
From the standpoint of Western media, Palestinian lives are relevant precisely in proportion to their ability to resist Israel’s crushing grip upon them. Insomuch as Hamas is the primary institution of organized resistance in Gaza, it is they -— not dead children -— who are the only significant Palestinian casualties in this war. It is this perceptual regime that lays behind comments such as the following, made by a US government official, just a few days ago: “We believe that a ceasefire right now benefits Hamas, and Hamas is the only one that would gain from that right now.” The thought that thousands of Palestinian children might also derive some benefit from a ceasefire, namely by not being blown to pieces, is not even to be entertained.
The erasure of enemy deaths is an established practice within war, and the deaths of children are no exception. Thousands of children were killed by the US in the “War on Terror.” These deaths never achieved significant visibility within American public discourse, never weighed heavily on the American political conscience.
Our mainstream media present us today with two events that cannot be squared, the war on Palestinian children and the war on Hamas, and then proceed to coach us in how not to see one of them. This is the task in perception management that today sets their agenda.
Charles Hirschkind is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His publications include The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (Columbia UP, 2006) and The Feeling of History: Islam, Romanticism, and Andalusia (Chicago UP, 2020).
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