Alastair Hay: Struggle to add up human cost of Gaza tragedy

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I AM having problems with the maths. It is unlikely to be the fault of the teachers I had as those who taught me maths were some of the best in the school. It may just be me. Or it could have something to do with the environment in which I grew up, which was Southern Rhodesia, or Zimbabwe as we now know it.

So why the environment? Well I’m white. White British actually. My parents emigrated from the UK when I was young. Although never rich they were well off compared with the black population. And they absorbed that colonial mentality that they were better than the locals. This justified all sorts of inequalities in schooling, health provision, income and land distribution. But above all it encouraged a belief that as whites they were more civilised and had more refined sensibilities that black people.

So what has this to do with maths? Well to most white colonials black people just didn’t feel things the way we whites did. So if a black child died, well it was regrettable, but life was much cheaper for black people and they would soon get over the death. As for the deaths of black adults in any conflict, well as long as there were no deaths of whites why be that concerned? As blacks were shallow they probably wouldn’t even notice the loss.

But feelings went even deeper than this. Many white colonials thought black people were lesser human beings. So when it came to comparing a white to a black life where do you start? Was one white life equal to two black ones? Or was it one to ten? Maybe one to a hundred? Pushed hard enough most whites would have argued that the ratio was well over one to a thousand, but actually there was no equitable comparison as it was just equating apples with oranges and apples were much the better fruit.

So you might begin to understand why some maths is a problem for me. I look at the tragedy in Gaza and stare in disbelief as the destruction unfolds on the television news. It seems all too familiar to me. Hundreds of children dead, most of their mothers too. Adult Palestinian deaths are in the many hundreds. Israeli deaths are mounting too, most of these are young soldiers.

What gets me is that it is always the young fighting wars on behalf of their elders. It is more the young dying on behalf of those too old to crouch in a trench for any length of time or throw a grenade as well as they would have done years previously. When politics fail, pity the poor bloody infantry.

We need to have pity for the infantry, Palestinian and Israeli. But what about the civilians? None of them are party to the conflict. How many of them must die before the assault on Gaza stops?

And I find myself asking the question how many children equate to one tunnel? This is where I struggle with the maths. If I fall back on my colonial upbringing I might just sort this out.

If Arabs are less human than Israelis then how many Arab lives equal one Israeli one? Can I base it on the deaths so far and arrive at a rough approximation of 20 to one? So far so good. But how many tunnels have been located and destroyed? I haven’t seen any numbers so imagine it is not that many.

Shall we say 10? I realise this is a bit arbitrary, but I am anxious to sort out my equation and it seems to come out as 20 children for every tunnel. Is that a bit cheap? If the concrete used in their construction came from Harrods,or Harvey Nichols, then probably.

But it is not really cheap at all. As I write there are over a hundred schools damaged, over two million people with limited access to water or sanitation and for every person killed about five times that number injured. These are United Nations’ figures.

The injured need treatment and hospital care. But hospitals and clinics appear no more immune to bombs and shellfire than any other structure.

Last week a number of us (academics and clinicians ) who have either worked in or on behalf of the people of Gaza signed a letter to the medical journal The Lancet calling for an end to the Israeli assault on the enclave.

Like many others we feel powerless to stop Israel. But at least we can point out that not everyone considers what Israel is doing is in any way acceptable.

The persecutions which Jews have experienced throughout history is truly horrifying. The community understands tragedy and genocide. You might have thought that of all people the Jews would understand and do something to prevent the almost ghettoisation of Gaza. But Israel seems to have chosen a different approach.

The ongoing tragedy is that the assault on Gaza will embitter its Arab neighbours, traumatise countless people and leave Israel always looking over its shoulder. And there will be more conflict which will leave me struggling yet again with the maths.

• Alastair Hay is Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Leeds.