Biden questioned Gaza’s death toll, so Palestinians released the names

Pictures of the Week Global Photo Gallery (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Pictures of the Week Global Photo Gallery (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The list is stark in its simplicity: the victim’s name, age and sex. But great tragedies are inferred from within the margins of the more than 200 pages. It tells of entire families extinguished — infants, grandparents, mothers, uncles, cousins all sharing the same surname are grouped together. Lives cut short before they are even a year old. There are 6,747 names in total, all of them killed during Israel’s assault on Gaza.

That number, reached in just 19 days, does not include the missing, making the true toll likely higher still.

The decision by the health ministry in Gaza to release the names of the dead appears to have come in response to comments from president Joe Biden, who abruptly declared during a press conference on Wednesday that he had “no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using” to count their dead.

Those comments sparked immediate anger and questions, both in the US and further afield, about how the president came to his position of doubt. Mr Biden’s comments represented a departure from his administration’s previous position on the ministry, given that the State Department has used those same casualty figures in its own reports.

The United Nations and numerous nongovernmental organisations working in Gaza have also testified to their reliability.

Mr Biden’s comments followed one of the bloodiest 24 hours since Israel began bombing the densely populated Gaza Strip: 704 Palestinians, including 305 children, were killed, according to the health ministry.

Palestinian officials described Gaza’s hospitals as being in “a state of complete collapse” as a result of Israel’s war on Gaza, which was launched in response to the massacre of 1,400 people, most of them civilians, by Hamas during an incursion into southern Israel.

Reacting to the president’s comments, Medhat Abbas, the director of Gaza’s largest hospital al-Shifa, told The Independent that he believed Mr Biden “does not know the truth.”

“He decides according to false news,” Mr Abbas said. “The ministry of health have released the names and ID for him to know the reality, but he is determined to ignore the truth.”

Mr Biden did not elaborate on what shaped his view of the ministry’s figures, but organisations with experience working in Gaza have used the numbers for many years. Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, described the numbers as “generally reliable.”

“They have access to data that are difficult for other sources to have,” Mr Shakir told The Independent.  “In particular, they aggregate data coming from different hospitals and morgues and compile them together. That’s why we, the UN, the US State Department have regularly cited their numbers.” Human Rights Watch had conducted their own independent investigations into particular strikes, says Mr Shakir, and they found the ministry’s numbers to be generally consistent, “with no major deviations from the figures that they have provided.”

The devastating list of Palestinian deaths released by the health ministry on Thursday stretched to more than 200 pages. The ministry produced a separate list specifically to document the children killed since Israel’s attack on Gaza began, of which there were 2665, with 248 of that number unidentified.

The White House repeatedly declined to directly state whether Mr Biden’s remarks on the reliability — or lack thereof — of casualty counts coming out of Gaza indicated a change in policy by the US, despite the State Department’s use of Gaza health ministry data during past conflicts.

A White House official instead referred The Independent to remarks delivered during a Thursday press briefing by John Kirby, a National Security Council (NSC) spokesman, in which he described the ministry as a “front for Hamas.”

“It’s run by Hamas, a terrorist organization,” said Mr Kirby. “I’ve said it myself up here: We can’t take anything coming out of Hamas, including the so-called Ministry of Health, at face value.”

Mr Kirby conceded that there “have been civilian casualties” as the result of Israel’s bombardment, and there “likely will be more [...] because that’s what war is. It’s brutal. It’s ugly. It’s messy.”

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

The health ministry in Gaza is part of a government run by Hamas, which seized control of the strip in 2007, but it employs civil servants and an administration that predates the takeover.

An NSC spokesperson also pointed to the health ministry’s claim that 500 people were killed by a strike at the Al Ahli hospital, but that the US intelligence community assessed the number of deaths to be between 100 and 300.

Mr Shakir, of Human Rights Watch, said there was a clear distinction between initial statements from the ministry immediately following a strike and the final list of names. The ministry later revised the total of those killed in the hospital strike to 471.

The US has its own history of undercounting civilian deaths. During the US-led coalition’s campaign to destroy Isis in Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon officially estimated that it killed 1,437 civilians. Airwars, an organisation that tracks reports of civilian casualties, estimates the real number to be between 8,199 and 13,259 based on its own investigations.

Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of inflating the numbers killed, but has so far declined to offer an alternative death toll, despite reporting casualty numbers in previous conflicts. When asked on Thursday Lt. Col Richard Hecht, a spokesperson for the military, said again they did not have casualty figures. He told journalists to take numbers released by the Gaza health ministry "with a pinch of salt”.

The Israeli military has said it believes civilians in Gaza have been killed by hundreds of Palestinian rockets which misfired and did not make it across the border to Israel.

APTOPIX Israel Palestinians (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
APTOPIX Israel Palestinians (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Mr Biden’s comments, and the follow-up clarifications from the White House, have reverberated among Arab and Muslim communities in the US, many of whom have been consumed by a constant stream of graphic images and news from Gaza for three weeks.

Hala Alyan, a Palestinian-American writer and clinical psychologist based in New York City, described Mr Biden’s comments as “startling” and likely to have a lasting impact.

“There is already a real dehumanisation happening around the language that is being used about Palestinians, both in terms of how their deaths are described, what they are equated with, in terms of the language used to describe them,”she told The Independent.

“It plants the seed that delegitimises even the people who have been killed. Even the dead can’t be named as dead,” she added.

Mr Biden was questioned specifically about his remarks during a meeting with Muslim and Arab leaders at the White House on Thursday, according to Politico, who reportedly argued that messaging from his administration was feeding into Islamaphobia.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organisation, condemned Mr Biden’s “shocking and dehumanising” comments, which followed one of the deadliest days of bombing since the conflict began, during which 704 Palestinians, including 305 children, were killed.

“Countless videos coming out of Gaza every day show mangled bodies of Palestinian women and children – and entire city blocks leveled to the ground,” CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad said in a statement. “President Biden should watch some of these videos and ask himself if the crushed children being dragged out of the ruins of their family homes are a fabrication or an acceptable price of war. They are neither.”