What would have happened, heaven forbid, if the tsunami had struck the coast of the Gaza Strip? It's a safe guess that Israel would have gone out of its way to proffer aid. Aid delegations would have left immediately for Gaza via the Erez checkpoint. Physicians, medicines and blankets would have made their way to Jabalya refugee camp and military correspondents would have reported from there with pride about the humanitarian operation mounted by the Israel Defense Forces. Every Palestinian child pulled from the ruins would have received deeply felt coverage in the media, hotels in Tel Aviv would have competed in making offers of shelter to those left homeless by the disaster and Channel 2 would have organized a marathon to raise funds for the new refugees.
Even if people are born equal, they are not equal in their death. It's important where they died and under what circumstances. The world has already pledged billions for the regions in Southeast Asia that were ravaged, conglomerates and individuals in Europe and the United States have mobilized to donate and dozens of countries are sending aid, among them Israel, albeit with its usual grandstanding. When it comes to natural disasters, the world - and Israel, too - shows far greater generosity and alacrity than it does in cases of man-made disasters.
When a tourist region is hit, attention is all the more intense. Anyone watching television in the West might think the tsunami struck Sweden or Switzerland. The majority of the survivors seen on the small screen look like Europeans. Here, we sometimes get the impression that this is an Israeli calamity. "The worst of all" was the banner headline on Friday in the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth, which reported the identification of the bodies of two Israelis.
In the past few years, 3 million people have died in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire), according to the International Rescue Community aid agency, but the world has barely lifted a finger. Few of them died in battles; they were killed by hunger and disease that spread in the wake of a war that began in 1998, as a revolt against President Laurent-Desire Kabila. Hardly anything has been written about the millions who have perished and no protest demonstrations have been held. Israel did not send aid and most countries of the world have averted their eyes from the horror.
Four years earlier, in 1994, about 1 million Tutsis were slaughtered in Rwanda. Not only did the international community do nothing to aid the victims, it got out of the region as fast as it could. The massacre had hardly begun when all the United Nations forces were removed from Rwanda, leaving the civilian population helpless. A few years before that, about 2 million people were killed during the 18-year war in Sudan. A million died in the Biafra conflict of the 1960s. In the past two years, some 50,000 people, by conservative estimate, have been killed in Darfur, in western Sudan, and 2 million have been uprooted from their homes.
All these casualties had the misfortune of being born in Africa and getting caught up in violent conflicts. They were born in the most forgotten place and died in circumstances for which the world least likes to mobilize aid. If they had been born elsewhere, or had found themselves in a natural disaster, their lot would have been slightly better. When the earth shook a year ago in Iran, the enemy of the international community, the international community nevertheless rushed to the country's aid. Some 20,000 people were killed in the Iranian city of Bam and no fewer than 22 countries sent assistance, including the United States, which dispatched rescue teams to its declared enemy. Even Israel offered to help. Two years earlier, the international community sent impressive immediate aid to the victims of an earthquake in the Indian state of Gujarat, where 20,000 people died. Even Pakistan sent tents and blankets. The IDF dubbed its aid operation to India "Hand Outstretched." Less than a year earlier, an international air convoy reached Madagascar, where a cyclone left 1,500 people dead. Last August, the United States pledged to send $210 million to Bangladesh, where 1,350 people were killed in floods, and Britain promised 10 million pounds. In all these natural disasters the world should and could have done far more, but it still did a great deal more than is the case with millions of people who were killed in wars, and as a result of them, in Africa.
Fewer people died in all the earthquakes that struck the world in the 20th century than in one remote war in Biafra, and far fewer than the number in another disregarded war in Congo. Whereas no one could have prevented the tsunami in Asia or the earthquake in Iran, wars can be prevented or stopped. But countries do not like to get involved in other people's wars. It is not just a matter of aid that was not delivered, but of sheer attention. The difference attests to self-righteousness and a double moral standard: The attack on the Twin Towers in Manhattan, in which 2,750 people were killed, shaped history; but few have heard of the war in Congo, where more than 3 million people have died. If it were not for the 10 or so missing Israelis in the tsunami disaster, we would have forgotten about it already. When hundreds are killed in Gaza and tens of thousands of innocent people are left homeless because of what we have done, we turn away. If they had been victims of a natural disaster, we would have already been there to help.
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