The death toll in Gaza currently stands at over thirteen hundred, with thousands more left injured, without homes and basic necessities; the calamitous impact of this tragedy is irrefutable. But as debates rage over the proportionality of Israel’s response, I find myself asking another question about proportionality. This comparatively small conflict has received an unprecedented and arguably disproportionate amount of media attention.
More than four hundred thousand people have died in Darfur since the war began in 2003 and another one to two million have been left homeless. The second Congo War, which ended in 2003, killed approximately 5.4 million people. Almost six years later, the legacy of the war is chillingly apparent, and violence and violation of human rights continues in the East. Lootings and rapes by militia groups are frequent, and the prevalence of rape is described as the worst in the world. The majority of the deaths have occurred from non-violent causes, such as malaria, malnutrition and pneumonia, with one million deaths occurring after the end of the conflict. Children make up forty-seven percent of the casualties but only nineteen percent of the population.
Yet it is the Gaza conflict which has created such outrage and outpourings all over the world. The scale of the reaction can be seen in the protests that have arisen across Europe: one hundred thousand demonstrators marched in London in January to protest against the Israeli offensive in the largest public protest in Britain. For weeks the media has been full of pictures of Gaza, of bombarded houses, dead women and children, and of refugees fleeing. Meanwhile, Darfur receives little media attention and humanitarian aid. The Saudi King recently announced a contribution of one billion US dollars to Gaza, and even at Warwick, the Gaza conflict has seen the greatest surge in student activism for years, resulting in the recent room occupation in solidarity for Gaza.
Some of the blame for the disproportionate response can be shunted onto the media; the weak media coverage of wars such as the Kivu conflict partially explains the lack of public awareness. Media coverage increases exponentially, and as public interest grows, they drum up the sensationalist coverage, creating more hunger for the story. But continuing the analogy, the media only feed the public what they know we will devour. It is difficult to pinpoint the explanation for the disproportionate amount of attention given to the Gaza conflict, and especially to Middle Eastern conflicts over African ones. What has become apparent is that the scale of a war cannot simply be measured by the number of deaths, civilian or otherwise. The Middle East is considered to be one of the world’s most volatile areas and the Gaza conflict is significant as part of the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, which has been raging for decades.
Whilst the civil war in Darfur is unlikely to have serious repercussions for Western countries, the Arab-Israeli conflict stems from two fundamentally different ideologies at the heart of two of the world’s major religions. Exacerbation of the conflict could potentially lead to a holy war and it is this threat, rather than the number of casualties, that make this so significant. Meanwhile, there are wider implications for Jews and Muslims all over the world who find themselves caught up in this conflict. Islam is now the second largest religion in the UK after Christianity, which incidentally has a long history of supporting Zionism. Debates and arguments about the validity of Zionism tend to be volatile in nature, because of the legacy of the Holocaust, and the fact that many still find it difficult to distinguish between Zionism and Judaism, and between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
In contrast to the wars raging in Africa, which remains a confusing and complex continent to most of us, most people find themselves siding easily with either Palestine or Israel, depending on their personal ideological stances. Much of the media coverage about Gaza revolves around taking sides; people are willing to protest because they strongly support one side or the other. It is much less apparent who to support in, for example, the war in Congo, which involved eight African nations. Africa is still thought of as a somewhat obscure and backward continent to many, and we therefore often overlook its conflicts, passing over these atrocities as typical occurrences in an uncivilised society.
Israel, however, is a civilised, democratic country which we can easily identify with. It receives a disproportionate amount of coverage in Western media because it is closely aligned with the United States on so many levels – military, economic, ideological, political, cultural and scientific – and receives a unprecedented level of economic and military aid, as well as a level of condemnation, because it is considered to be a country which must serve the wider interests of Western civilisation.
The unbalanced coverage of these different conflicts has serious consequences which need to be addressed. The public perception of which countries are in most dire need of international aid is seriously warped, and we consequently devote a disproportionate amount of aid to countries with relatively higher standards of living. The sensationalist coverage of the Gaza conflict generates animosity between these two major religions, causing friction and outbreaks of violence all over the world. Of course the recent surge in public and student activism is commendable, and I applaud those who have taken measures to provide aid and relief to those suffering in Gaza. Before we pat ourselves on the back, however, we should be aware that many and more devastating wars are currently being waged, and no one seems to be occupying rooms for Africa.