An Optimistic Theory about Why the Death Toll of Israelis was Low that Day

If 2,000 heavily armed terrorists have a free rein inside a nation they despise, how many people do you imagine they would kill? On 7 October, nearly 2,000 Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel; they killed about 1,400. This points to the likelihood that some or many Hamas terrorists did not kill anyone that day. What did they do? Just walked around? I think so. The terrorists did injure over 3,000, and took over 200 hostages; even so, considering the fact that thousands of civilians were entirely at the mercy of terrorists for hours, what explains a death toll that is less than the number of terrorists? Even if you discard Israel’s assessment of 2,000 terrorists, there appears little dispute that over 1,000 had entered Israel. Why was the massacre disproportionate to what we imagine would happen if 1,000 to 2,000 terrorists walked into our residential areas carrying machine guns, rocket launchers and grenades? We can argue that the areas along the Gaza-Israel border were not densely populated. But at one of the first targets, the Supernova Music festival, there were over 3,000 in attendance. Here about 250 were killed. We can argue that thousands somehow managed to flee at the first sign of trouble; they scattered and they hid. But what if something else was at play?

What if some or many terrorists were incapable of being as barbaric as they had fantasized? This is not unusual. In Afghanistan, some suicide bombers were known to veer away from crowded parts and detonate the bomb in quieter places. In the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, most soldiers refused to fire, writes Rutger Bregman in his book, Humankind: A Hopeful History. They even pretended to fire, and reload, to appease their superiors.

The latest phase in the Israel-Palestine conflict is uniquely brutal for Israel, and brutal in a very familiar way for Palestinians. At first glance, it makes us lose hope in humanity, in our most important hypothesis that there is some point in human life, that we may not exactly know what that point is, but it somehow involves our revulsion for barbarity. But we just need to look more carefully at the world’s desperate attempts to persuade Israel to realize what it already knows, that “revenge is a lazy form of grief,” as a character says in the film The Interpreter.

Most people attach a high value to human life, including that of people they despise. I do not say this makes us safer. In fact, this makes us unsafe. In a world where most people are incapable of killing, a few demented people can be highly efficient at it. I only say that there is hope because peace appears to be natural to humans. Maybe it is not as ancient as humans, maybe it is not a primordial thing, but it is now at the heart of all modern human societies.

This is also the reason why Palestine’s public relations always trumps Israel’s. Even though over 1,000 Jews were massacred, some of them brutally, the moral high ground shifted from Israel in just a day—to Palestinian Arabs. This is because consciously and unconsciously the world wants to protect Palestinians from Israeli vengeance. Consciously and unconsciously, they can see what had happened to the area’s Arabs. They were ‘the natives’ barely considered human by early European settlers, an experience Indians and indigenous people everywhere suffered. Such natives were usually obliterated so completely, there was no question of festering political wounds. But by the time European Jews had colonized Palestine, Europeans had lost the moral capacity for the obliteration of natives. So, maybe, even in the festering of a historical wound, there is evidence of human compassion. The Jews of the 1940s, victims and survivors of genocides themselves, could not commit a genocide, however convenient that may have been.

It may not seem at first glance that many conservative Hindus care for Palestinians. Social media amplifies a particular sort of people and bots. I can easily believe news reports that a lot of anti-Palestine fake news emerges from India. Even so, I sense that the sympathy of the average Hindu is with Palestinians. This is because people, in general, are conservative when the stakes are high, when stuff directly affects them, and liberal when the stakes are low, as in international affairs. People need to take a tough stance to protect their home and way of life, and because of that they need to compensate by taking up just causes far away. Palestine is that just cause. This is why there is no such things a global right-wing while humanitarians are a global monoculture. This is why a high proportion of Hindus are unlikely to back Israel, and many Israelis probably have deep sympathy for the plight of Indian Muslims. This too points to the humane drift of modern societies.

Indians who think they despise Palestinians, I suspect, do not really Arabs they have never met; they hate the sanctimonious posh preachers here in India. They need to take the opposite view of the sermonizing intellectuals who annoy them. So, perhaps, most of the venom on social media is not as bad as it seems.

As I write this, there are several videos of kids covered in cement and dried blood, quaking, as though an explosion is still reverberating in their slight bodies. Every time we figure out that an image of this nature is not from Palestine, we feel some relief. As though these kids covered in cement and blood never existed. Maybe a time will come when these things never happen anywhere, that they become obsolete, like psychotic European explorers.

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