The inequality of lives is perhaps the most troubling moral and political fact in contemporary societies. It is often measured in terms of diverging life expectancies at birth. Among countries, such differences exceed thirty years between the most deprived, Lesotho and the Central African Republic, and the wealthiest, Japan and Switzerland. Within countries, for men, they amount to thirteen years in France between the poorest five percent and the richest five percent, and to fifteen years in the United States between high-school-dropout Blacks and college-degree Whites.

In war contexts, inequality can be evaluated via the number of deaths among belligerents and the financial compensation provided to the victims’ families. Thus, it is estimated that since the military intervention of the United States and its allies in Iraq in 2003, at least 200,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed and 4,600 US soldiers have died.1 The casualty ratio between civilians and soldiers is therefore around 43 to 1. In Afghanistan, it is 20 to 1. The gap between financial compensations is even wider. Condolences disbursed for Iraqi or Afghan civilians killed by the US army are capped at $2,500. The benefits paid to the families of US soldiers who died in these two wars rise to $500,000. The economic valuation of the life of a US soldier is therefore 200 times that of an Iraqi or Afghan civilian.

The toll of the Israeli wars on Gaza is among the most unequal of all military operations which have been conducted on the planet in the 21st century. During the 2008 Operation Cast Lead, which started after the Israeli army had violated the ceasefire with Hamas and launched a pre-emptive incursion into Gaza to destroy a tunnel while Palestinian militants fought back with rockets, 1,391 Palestinians died, 759 being civilians, and 13 Israeli lost their lives, 3 being civilians and 4 of the 10 soldiers being killed by friendly fire.2 The casualty ratio was more than 100 to 1 in total and, for civilians, exceeded 250 to 1. Three hundred and eighteen children were killed in Gaza, none in Israel.

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During the 2014 Operation «Protective Edge», triggered by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youths and the arrest of three hundred and fifty Palestinians in retaliation, 2,251 Palestinians were killed, including 1,462 civilians among whom 551 children, and 21 were executed by Hamas for alleged collaboration with the enemy, whereas 67 Israeli soldiers were killed, as well as 6 civilians in Israel from Palestinian rocket fire, one of them being a child.1 This time, the casualty ratio was 34 to 1 in total, 243 to 1 for civilians, and 551 to 1 for children. Needless to say, in the aftermath of these wars, there was no financial compensation for the deaths of civilians. If the value of a life is estimated according to the tally of deaths directly caused by war, the life of a Palestinian civilian can be said to be several hundred times less worth than that of an Israeli civilian.

This gruesome comparison reaches extreme levels with the current war on Gaza called Operation «Iron Swords», launched by the Israeli government after Hamas’s dreadful assault on 7 October 2023 and the slaying of 1,139 people in Israel, among them 766 civilians, 695 being Israelis and 36 being children.2 It was by far the deadliest terrorist attack in Israel since the founding of the state, with thirty-one times more casualties than the second most lethal in 1978.3 Moreover, 240 Israelis were taken hostage, while more than 2,000 Palestinians were put in administrative indefinite detention, that is, without trial.4 Within the first two months of the conflict, 300 Palestinian families lost each more than 10 members, fifteen times more than during the war of 2014. After one hundred days, the toll was more than 31,000 Palestinians dead, including an estimated 7,000 still under the rubble.5 Among the 24,100 whose bodies were identified, more than 10,000 were children and 7,000 women. The casualty ratio was already 27 to 1 in total and 280 to 1 for children.

According to these conservative and provisional estimations of deaths in Gaza, the population-related mortality rate due to the war was 125 times higher among Palestinians than in Israel during the same period and more than 2,000 times higher for children. In terms of the number of fatalities per capita, it has been calculated that the tally of the October 7 attack in Israel represented the equivalent of fifteen 9/11s.6 Using the same method, the magnitude of the mass killing of Gazans after three months—at least one per cent of the population—would correspond to 3.4 million deaths in the United States, that is, to more than eleven hundred times 9/11 and to more deaths than from all civil and international wars waged in US history combined. For Hamas, the sacrifice of human lives is deemed the necessary cost for the final liberation of Palestinians from the occupation of their territory, a reasoning which most of the population seems to support.7 For Israel, extreme violence against Palestinians is legitimized by the defence of its own security, even though recent history proves this approach to be ineffective.8 Both logics – one emancipatory, the other repressive – participate in the unprecedented mass murder of Gazans.

If these figures are appalling, they are by no means a product of chance. A spokesperson of the Israeli Defence Forces publicly affirmed that «the emphasis is on damage, not on accuracy», and anonymous intelligence sources are quoted saying that, for the military, the expected killing of one Hamas member can justify the death of hundreds of civilians.1 As analysed via aerial imagery and artificial intelligence, more than two hundred 2,000-pound bombs, which can create fifty-meter-diameter craters and enormous human damages, have been dropped on residential areas in South Gaza where the Israeli army had told Palestinians they should go «for safety».2 The mass murder of civilians was deliberate in Gaza as it had been in Israel, but it is happening on an immensely larger numerical scale.

Besides the fact that the mass murder of Palestinians is of a different nature from previous wars on Gaza by the number of casualties, the weaponry employed and the strategy used, it has been accompanied this time by a worrying discourse of dehumanization, comparing Palestinians with «human animals», of negation, contesting the very existence of the «Palestinian people», and of annihilation, announcing the «complete destruction» of both infrastructure and inhabitants, all statements made by government officials and army chiefs.3 This language led many experts to speak of a genocidal intent, especially as it has been associated with corresponding acts, in particular a complete blockade which asphyxiates the population. This accusation was brought by the South African government to the International Court of Justice, which almost unanimously considered some merits to the charge and ordered Israel to prevent any act of genocide.4 It was forcefully denied by the Israeli government.

The qualification of the war is, however, not the only disputed fact. The quantification of its casualties is also questioned. Actually, although the only established erroneous counting so far was related to the number of Israeli victims of the October 7 attacks, which was initially inflated and misrepresented in an understandably highly emotional context, Western media and politicians have expressed constant suspicion over the figures of Palestinian deaths, systematically presenting them as «according to Gaza Health Ministry». This distrust is all the more remarkable since, in previous conflicts, this institution’s statistics were quite close to those later checked by independent sources – 2,310 Palestinians were said to have been killed in 2014, compared to 2,251 later counted in the special report of the United Nations.5 In response to the declaration of the president of the United States that he had «no confidence» in the body count of Palestinians, the Gaza Health Ministry went so far as to publish, on 27 October, the name, age, gender and identity card number of all identified dead Gazans.6 Through this dispute over mortality data, Palestinians are thus being punished twice. Their life has been taken, and they are denied their death.

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In fact, the discussion of these statistics should take the opposite direction. The tally of casualties published by Gaza Health Ministry is undoubtedly underestimated, not only because many corpses which are under the rubble will never be counted as their remains will disappear with the clearing of razed buildings, but above all because the deaths of the most vulnerable from starvation, dehydration, disease and wounds will not be tallied. According to the Watson Institute’s project Costs of War, the «post-9/11 wars» in which the United States have taken part have caused approximately 920,000 direct deaths and 3.7 million indirect deaths – four times more.1 Indirect deaths are the consequences of economic collapse, food insecurity, the destruction of infrastructure, environmental contamination, the spread of epidemics and the lack of health care due to the absence of medicines and damaged hospitals.

To calculate the total number of casualties caused by wars, epidemiologists design surveys on samples of the population, interviewing people about losses in the household, which they compare with losses prior to the conflict. The excess of deaths measures the mortality due to war much more accurately than the number of casualties. Thus, during the first six years after the invasion of its country, the Iraqi Health Ministry reported that 110,000 Iraqis had been killed, but a survey conducted by an expert team from Johns Hopkins’ School of Public Health estimated that 655,000 Iraqis had actually died in just the first three years of the conflict – six times more in half the lapse of time.2 It can be safely assumed that if the Israeli government authorizes independent health experts to carry out such studies in Gaza after the war, the Palestinian death toll will by far exceed the tally currently published.

To relativize the considerably unequal price paid by civilians on both sides of the conflict, some have asserted that the meaning of death was different for Israelis on 7 October and for Palestinians afterwards. It is more hurtful to be killed because one is Jewish, they argued, than to be killed randomly by a bomb. In the first case, it is the person’s very humanity that is injured, whereas in the second, casualty is the unfortunate outcome of war. In this vein, Hamas has been accused by the Israeli Prime Minister of being akin to «Nazis» and having committed «another Holocaust», and the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations has attended a session of this international institution wearing a yellow star with the slogan «Never Again».3 While the traumatic experience of Israelis in the aftermath of the October 7 massacre needs to be acknowledged, such interpretations are problematic for two reasons.

On the one hand, they depoliticize the Hamas attack by precluding the possibility that it was directed against occupiers rather than Jews, a claim that the movement’s leaders repeatedly make, albeit on a disputed basis.1 The matter is further complicated by the fact that Israel has declared itself a Jewish state, thus excluding from its very definition minorities representing one fourth of the population. On the other hand, they also depoliticize the Israeli massacre of civilians. The Israeli Defence Minister publicly justified a war on Gazan civilians by affirming that Hamas, or indeed the Palestinians, were «human animals» and «should be treated as such», which seemed to imply in his view not only indiscriminate bombing, in a span of only three months, at a level superior to that of Iraq by the United States for a territory 1,200 times smaller and 68 times denser, but also depriving an entire population of water, food, electricity, and medicines.2 One should therefore also wonder how hurtful it is to be killed as a human animal.

The meaning of death on both sides of the Gaza wall becomes more complex when approached not from the presumed perspective of the person who dies but from the more explicit one of those who make decisions on who may die – the «necropolitics» of the belligerents.3 For Palestinian organizations, martyrdom has long been a way of bearing witness both religiously and politically to their condition. Sacrificing one’s live is seen as an affirmation of its worthiness against the devaluation by the occupant.4 For the Israeli army, the capture of civilian or military hostages by the enemy induces a weakness in that it leads to painful dilemmas about the acceptable price for their liberation. In recent years, the military doctrine has evolved increasingly to the disadvantage of the hostages’ lives.5 Both these necropolitics – the former trying to restore the value of life through martyrdom, the latter resolving to suppress it in the name of realpolitik – have contributed to increasingly deadly orientations in the conflict.

There is, however, a limit to the analysis of the inequality of lives from the sole perspective of their physical dimension: the mere fact of being alive, as Walter Benjamin has it.6 It is as if to address life, one could only speak about death. There is no doubt that the suppression of lives is the most obvious expression of the disparity in the valuation of human lives which takes an extreme form when the life of certain children is deemed several hundred or even thousand times more dispensable than that of others. But inequality cannot be reduced to a quantity of lives taken; it must be apprehended in terms of the quality of lives lived. Life is not merely physical; it has a social component, too. It is not only biological; it is biographical. Inequality is not just about how much a life is worth; it is also about how much it was worth living.

From this viewpoint, the disparity between Israelis and Palestinians is even more striking. The former enjoy freedom of movement; they benefit from the protection of their police and army; they have access to all material and cultural commodities of a wealthy society; they are citizens of a state recognized by the international community. The latter live in occupied territories; they are maintained in economic dependency; they suffer high unemployment and lack of basic goods; they are increasingly dispossessed of their land by settlers; they often live in camps after having been plundered; they experience harassment by hostile soldiers; they have to endure humiliations at checkpoints; they can be arbitrarily kept in detention without trial; they are denied existence as a people, let alone as a nation and a state. Israeli lives are highly valued; Palestinian lives have constantly been devalorized.

Built over decades of oppression, it is this profoundly unequal assessment of the worth of lives that provides the genealogy of the extreme violence unfolding in Israel and Palestine since 7 October 2023.