Peace activist, Hashem Al-Azzeh was killed by IOF on 21 October, Hebron

People, Not Numbers

The absence of a human factor in coverage of the occupied Palestinian territory, is potentially leading to international apathy rather than action.

By Megan Hanna

When I was chatting with Hashem on Monday 19th, arranging to meet him the next week, I had no idea I would be attending his funeral on the Thursday.

Despite the rising death toll in the occupied Palestinian territory since the beginning of the month, as of yesterday I was still living in a self-assured bubble of denial, and never really thought that any of my friends would join the burgeoning statistics.

That illusion was shattered on Wednesday when I saw a mutual friend post on Facebook that Hashem had died, after being delayed from receiving medical treatment due to the military checkpoint that restricts access to his home, and subsequently being tear-gassed by the Israeli military. At first I couldn’t quite process the news, and sat numbly staring at the status. It wasn’t until the eulogies came pouring in that I broke down, fully realizing that Hashem Al Azzeh was dead.

I met Hashem last spring, when I was filming a documentary in Hebron. Upon my second day of being there whilst chatting with my first interviewees, I was met with quizzical glances, raised eyebrows, and an incredulous “What, you haven’t met Hashem yet?” Apparently he was quite the local celebrity, and a customary pit stop for any visitor wanting to learn of Palestinian experiences in the troubled city.

So I duly made contact and arranged to meet Hashem that afternoon, at checkpoint 56 close to where he lived in Tel Rumedia. As I arrived I saw his tall, stooped frame, sporting a smart striped shirt and knitted cardigan, and kind brown eyes nestled under wiry bushy brows. He introduced himself, and after a few pleasantries we made our way to his house, which sits stoically surrounded by illegal settlers and Israeli military personnel.

We walked past the graffiti on a wall near his home reading “Gas the Arabs”- a sinister foreshadowing of his future – and down a rocky path, ducking beneath his grape tree; its leaves blackened and curled from being poisoned by settlers.

Despite losing two children to the occupation, as well as suffering a daily onslaught of verbal and physical attacks, having his water pipes cut, crops poisoned, human feces thrown at his house, and being offered a generous sum of money to relocate – Hashem, his wife and four children refused to be forced from their home. On Tuesday 20th, the day before he died, Hashem attempted to pick olives from his grove, but was prevented from finishing the harvest due to the arrival of settlers armed with machine guns.

As he has done for many internationals, Hashem invited me in, made a steaming pot of Arabic coffee and told me his story, in his enduring hope that if enough people were made aware of the systematic oppression that Palestinians are subjected to, then perhaps change would one day occur.

Hashem was the all-encompassing spirit of non-violent resistance, and just glancing at his Facebook profile gives an indication of how many are mourning the incredible man the world has lost. The moment I saw Hashem’s pixelated face and firsteulogy on Facebook, is the moment that I can claim comprehension of the fact that Israel’s military occupation is killing people, not creating statistics.

People – flawed, dynamic, ever-changing and evolving, with their idiosyncrasies and foibles that make them unique and human – are stripped of their individuality in the impersonal number crunch of X fatalities + Y injured, that comprises the majority of news reportage. What the totals, percentages and ratios of news bulletins fail to reveal, arethe interwoven stories of loss and resistance that unfold everyday under Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

What the headline of “54 year old Palestinian dies from tear gas inhalation” fails to address, is the mischievous gleam that flickered in Hashem’s eyes when he gave you advice on your love life, or hisproud grin when he pointed out each of his wife’s paintings, hanging in his living room. Some of the more substantial articles reveal that Hashem was a doctor and a community leader, a father and a husband, a peace activist and advocate of non-violent resistance. But still, none of these epithets adequately describe in entirety the man that Hashem was. Or the tragedy his death represents.

Of course, journalists and media agencies cannot possibly delve into a lengthy and poetic character development of every fatality that occurs from conflict,in the same way that we do not have the capacity to feel empathy for every fatality we hear of on the news. However, abrupt statistics and pithy news headlines obscurethe human factor of conflict, and this is one contributing aspect of a wider problem.

Concerning an occupation that many NGOs and rights groups have stated asrequiring international intervention; a lack of relatable reporting becomes dangerous when people aren’t able to truly comprehend the victims as people, but as mere numbers. AsDaoudKuttab, a journalist and former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University says, “one of the most exasperating problems facing Palestinian efforts to end the Israeli occupation has been conveying to the world the daily suffering that they endure under it”.

Statistics are packages of information that fail to touch hearts and minds, for it has long been recognized that reason and logic aren’t usually the factors that are able to move moral sentiments. However, when words and images begin to express the stories behind the numbers, they have the potential to transform people’s reactions from a vague awareness of physically and emotionally remote events, to recognition of immediate tragedy that requires pressing action.

For example, the photograph of AylanKurdai’s small body washed up on a beach completely changed the way media agencies began reporting Europe’s refugee crisis, and touched a public who had only previously been able to conceive of 200,000 deaths and 11 million refugees as numbers.The personable narrative of MalalaYousafazi was able to provoke outrage at the threats in Pakistan to female education, in a way that the kidnapping of 219 girls by the Boko Haram in Nigeria did not. For whilst the shock of the kidnapping roused a spasm of coverage, the endurance of the narrative in media outlets and collective consciousness was relatively fleeting; without a leading character or human story for audiences to relate to, the people concerned once again faded to numbers.

In this instance, there appears a disparity between the scope and gravity of thetrauma Palestinians are suffering, and meaningful engagement from the international community – suggesting that perhaps the media is failing in its task to adequately convey the ordeal that is occurring, to a consequently apathetic public.

 

If the nature of reporting evolves as it did with the European refugee crisis, and journalists are able to harness the power of storytelling – meaning international audiences might recognize and relate to Palestinian victims such as Hashem as people who deserve proper consideration – then perhaps a step can be taken into ending the human suffering under the prolonged Israeli occupation.

A crowd-funding campaign for Hashem’s family as been set up via Go Fund Me. Anyone who wishes to contribute can do so by visiting: https://www.gofundme.com/8c6vj6s4