By Ramzy Baroud
Palestine can never be truly understood through numbers because numbers are dehumanizing, impersonal and, when necessary, can also be contrived to mean something else entirely. Numbers are not meant to tell the story of the human condition, nor should they ever serve as a substitute for emotions.
The stories of life, death and everything in between cannot be fully appreciated through charts, figures and numbers. Numbers, although useful for many purposes, are mere data. Anguish, joy, aspirations, defiance, courage, loss, collective struggle, and so on can only be genuinely expressed through the people who experience them.
Numbers, for example, tell us that more than 2,200 Palestinians were killed during the 2014 Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, with 500-plus of them being children. More than 17,000 homes were destroyed and thousands of other buildings, including hospitals, schools and factories, were either destroyed or severely damaged during the Israeli strikes. This is all true: The kind of truth that can be summarized in a neat infographic, updated occasionally, whenever more of the critically wounded lose their lives.
But a single chart, or even a thousand, can never truly describe the actual terror felt by a million children who feared for their lives during those horrific days. A chart cannot transport us to a bedroom where a family of 10 huddled in the dark, praying for God’s mercy as the earth shook, concrete collapsed and glass shattered all around them. It cannot convey the anguish of a mother holding the lifeless body of her child.
It is easy — and justifiable — to hold the media accountable for the dehumanization of the Palestinians, or sometimes for ignoring them altogether. However, if blame must be apportioned, then others too, including some who consider themselves to be “pro-Palestine,” must reconsider their position. We are all, to an extent, collectively guilty of seeing Palestinians as sheer victims — a hapless, passive, intellectually stunted and ill-fated people, desperate to be “saved.”
When numbers monopolize the limelight in a people’s narrative, they do more damage than merely reduce complex human beings to data: They erase the living, too. Regarding Palestine, Palestinians are rarely engaged as equals. They persist at the receiving end of charity, political expectations and unsolicited instructions on what to say and how to resist. They are often the fodder for political bargains by factions or governments and are rarely the initiative-takers or the shapers of their own political discourse.
The Palestinian political discourse has, for years, vacillated between one constructed around the subject of victimhood — which is often satisfied by the numbers of dead and wounded — and another pertaining to the elusive Fatah-Hamas unity. The former only surfaces whenever Israel decides to bomb Gaza under any convenient pretext, while the latter is a response to Western accusations that Palestinian political elites are too fractured to constitute a potential “peace partner” for Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many around the world can only understand, or relate to, Palestinians through their victimization or factional affiliation, which itself carries subsidiary meanings relevant to “terrorism,” “radicalism,” etc.
However, the reality is often different from the reductionist political and media discourses. Palestinians are not just numbers. They are not mere spectators in a political game that insists on marginalizing them. Soon after the 2014 war, a group of Palestinian youths, together with supporters from around the world, launched an important initiative aimed at liberating the Palestinian discourse, at least in Gaza, from the confines of numbers and other belittling interpretations.
“We Are Not Numbers” was launched in early 2015. The group’s mission statement reads: “Numbers don’t convey… the daily personal struggles and triumphs, the tears and the laughter, the aspirations that are so universal that, if it weren’t for the context, they would immediately resonate with virtually everyone.”
I recently spoke to several members of the group, including Gaza Project Manager Issam Adwan. It was inspiring to hear young, articulate and profoundly resolute Palestinians speaking a language that transcends all the stereotypical discourses on Palestine. They were neither victims nor factional, and were hardly consumed by the pathological need to satisfy Western demands and expectations. “We have talents. We are writers, we are novelists, we are poets, and we have so much potential that the world knows little about,” Adwan told me.
Khalid Dader, one of the organization’s nearly 60 active writers and bloggers in Gaza, disputes the designation that they are “storytellers.” He told me: “We don’t tell stories, rather stories tell us… stories make us.” For Dader, it is not about numbers or words, but the lives that are lived and the stories that often go untold.
Somaia Abu Nada wants the world to know her uncle because “he was a person with a family and people who loved him.” He was killed in the 2008 Israeli war on Gaza and his death has profoundly impacted his family and community. More than 1,300 others were also killed in that war. Each of them was someone’s uncle, aunt, son, daughter, husband or wife. None of them was just a number.
“‘We Are Not Numbers’ made me realize how necessary our voices are,” Mohammed Rafik told me. This assertion cannot be overstated. So many speak on behalf of Palestinians, but rarely do Palestinians speak for themselves. “These are unprecedented times of fear, when our land appears to be broken and sad,” Rafik said. “But we never abandon our sense of community.”
Adwan also reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s famous quote: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
It was refreshing to talk to Palestinians who are taking the decisive step of declaring that they are not numbers, because it is only through this realization and resolve that the Palestinian youth can challenge all of us and assert their own collective identity. Palestinians do have a voice, and a strong, resonating one at that.