One Israeli = 1,027 Palestinians so goes the “calculus of citizenship” revealed in the prisoner exchange carried out this week between Israel and Hamas. While mathematics is one of the few branches of learning said to be devoid of cultural bias, in this context, the numbers are not above interpretation. From Tel Aviv, the Shalit-Palestinian ratio could confirm the oft-repeated conceit that Israelis value human life more than their Arab neighbors do, thus signifying a “win” for Israel. From Gaza, the exchange rate could be seen in terms of a soccer match, in which the Palestinians drastically outscored the opposition in a macabre, one-sided victory. In truth, the search for winners and losers among so much human misery borders on the obscene; perhaps the most one can hope for is that some lessons will be learned.
At least one comes to mind: The various governments rocked by the Arab Spring this year Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen - need to display a greater degree of respect for the lives of their own citizens. Certain glib columnists have been quick to give credit for the Arab Spring to everything from Twitter to the Beijing Olympics, but the driving force behind the populist uprisings in Egypt and Syria, in fact the very need for the uprisings themselves, has been that successive regimes in Cairo and Damascus have treated their own people as subjects, rather than citizens.
While the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi is held up as the spark that ignited the democracy movement in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Egyptians had had enough of Hosni Mubarak and his regal ways for quite some time.
One area where social media proved a useful tool in organizing an already-extant opposition was a Facebook page commemorating the June 2010 murder by two policemen of a young Egyptian man named Khaled Said. His death was but one of many instances whereby citizens there were exposed to abuse, torture or rape at the hands of the authorities without any possibility of recourse from the state.
Even after the departure of Mubarak, a lack of respect for the individual can still be observed within the rump regime left behind. The recent killing of around two dozen Coptic Christian protesters is indicative that individuals in Egypt, particularly minorities such as Christians, atheists or gays, have yet to be truly respected in the eyes of the state.
Meanwhile in Syria, the second Assad regency has proven itself to be no less willing to murder its own citizens in order to stay in power than the one that preceded it. The United Nations recently reported that the death toll in Syria has topped 3,000 since democracy protests began seeking to replicate the success of their brothers and sisters in Egypt.
My own impressions of the late Hafez Assad are forever colored by a conversation with a Syrian acquaintance, whose voice lowered to a whisper at the mere mention of the former despot’s name and this, despite the fact that we were over a thousand miles away in Kuwait and Assad had been dead for nearly 10 years. Such was the fear instilled in a people by their leader.
Furthermore, it is important to note that this lack of respect for citizens’ rights is not a recent phenomenon. Torture (not simple maltreatment) has been a leitmotif of successive regimes in Cairo and Damascus since they achieved independence. The British journalist Robert Fisk has documented in some detail the tortures inflicted on Syrians by the nation’s Mukhabarat. In his 1990 book “Pity The Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon,” he catalogs a grim list of torture paraphernalia deployed against the Syrian people over the years, including special “chairs” designed to crush the vertebrae of their victims, and other unspeakable devices. But in the same book, there are also descriptions of torture carried out by Israeli security officials. In particular, a 1977 Sunday Times report detailing beatings and the use of electrodes on Arab detainees.
This is where the “calculus of citizenship” begins to take on a morally nihilistic hue and pose some uncomfortable questions. Does torture count as much when it’s directed at somebody else? Does the image of Israelis torturing Palestinians shock you more or less than the idea of Egyptians abusing their own?
But those are questions for a different time, and for the moment we must return to Gilad and Gaza a place that has also been the victim of some morally dubious arithmetic over the years. As homemade Qassam rockets continued to be fired from Gaza into Israeli in 2008, resulting in eight fatalities, the Israeli government was faced with a decision: How to respond? The world knows the answer. On December 27, 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead an air and ground campaign that left around 1,400 Palestinians dead, including some 300 children.
It seems the “calculus of citizenship” also works in reverse.
Raymond Barrett is an Irish writer and journalist. He is the author of “Dubai Dreams: Inside the Kingdom of Bling.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.