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Biden Wades Into Sensitive Debate About Whether To Trust Gaza Death Tolls

While everyone acknowledges the civilian toll is climbing in Gaza, a new doubt has begun to spread in recent days about the reliability of the death counts given by Gaza’s government, which is run by Hamas. U.S. President Joe Biden now says he doesn't believe the numbers at all, which has set off criticism about his lack of both sources and "empathy."

photo of a corpse wrapped in a sheet and people praying

Mourners on Wednesday pray over the body of one of the victims of Israeli air raids in Gaza.

Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images via ZUMA
Emma Albright and Jakob Mieszkowski-Lapping

Updated Oct. 26, at 2 p.m.

The Gaza health ministry has again updated the total Palestinian death toll, as it’s done regularly for the past two weeks. The ministry reported late Thursday that at least 6,546 Palestinians have been killed across Gaza since the current Israeli-Hamas conflict began two weeks ago, including 2,704 children.

Yet, even as all acknowledge the civilian toll is climbing, a new doubt has begun to spread in recent days about the reliability of the death counts given by Gaza’s government, which is run by Hamas.

In a press conference on Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden was the latest to cast doubt on the health ministry’s numbers, saying “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed.”

He added that he was “sure innocents [had] been killed, and it’s the price of waging war.”

Biden’s statement of doubt was quickly criticized for lacking both evidence and empathy. U.S. journalist Max Fisher called the president’s assertion “quite a charge to make without evidence.”

Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, tweeted that Biden is “utterly incapable of empathizing [with] Palestinians.”

Hospital bombing toll

In recent years, the Israeli and international press, as well as the United Nations, have tended to trust the casualties figures given by the Palestinian authorities, even with Hamas in charge. But since the latest conflict began on October 7, there have been no independent sources verifying these numbers in Gaza.

The questions have multiplied since the controversy surrounding the explosion on the Al-Ahli Arabi hospital in Gaza City. Not only has debate raged about who was responsible for the explosion, but many critics of Hamas have also dismissed the total of more than 500 deaths announced just minutes after the explosion as wildly exaggerated. Independent observers and international media have made estimates that range from 100 to 350 deaths.

An article published in French daily’s Libération, underlines the historical reliance on the Palestinian Ministry of Health's figures, even though Hamas now controls all information.

This reliance was based on the ministry's data aligning with independent evaluations by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). However, due to the recent intensity of the conflict, it has become challenging to collect data independently. Now, the only primary source for casualty figures is the Palestinian Ministry of Health, which is under the influence of Hamas.

News organization choices

The controversy at Al-Ahli Arab hospital has raised doubts about the reliability of this source. Journalists and organizations, including the UNRWA and OCHA, have now been urged to exercise more caution when citing these figures. The Libération article concludes by emphasizing the importance of prudence in evaluating casualty figures in the ongoing conflict, even as it notes that Amnesty International has reported evidence of potential war crimes in recent Israeli attacks in Gaza.

The real-time updating of conflicts like the war in the Gaza puts new pressures on both sources and distributors of information. On Monday, The New York Times published a special editor's note acknowledging that it had rushed to report unsubstantiated facts about the Al-Ahli Arab hospital explosion, and was forced to update its article "noting that the death toll might be lower than initially reported."

Both the American and French publications are among those that have begun to add to reports of death counts in Gaza that the numbers "could not be independently verified."

Besides the responsibility for the hospital explosion one week ago, it is also still not clear how many people were killed — or whether the approximately 500 people that Hamas reported dead are included in the total updated death toll.

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Violence Against Women, The Patriarchy And Responsibility Of The Good Men Too

The femicide of Giulia Cecchettin has shaken Italy, and beyond. Argentine journalist Ignacio Pereyra looks at what lies behind femicides and why all men must take more responsibility.

photo of a young man holding a sign: Filippo isn't a monster, he's the healthy son of the patriarchy

A protester's sign referring to the alleged killer reads: Filippo isn't a monster, he's the healthy son of the patriarchy

Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press via ZUMA Press
Ignacio Pereyra

Updated Dec. 3, 2023 at 10:40 p.m.


ATHENS — Are you going to write about what happened in Italy?, Irene, my partner, asks me. I have no idea what she's talking about. She tells me: a case of femicide has shaken the country and has been causing a stir for two weeks.

As if the fact in itself were not enough, I ask what is different about this murder compared to the other 105 women murdered this year in Italy (or those that happen every day around the world).

For the latest news & views from every corner of the world, Worldcrunch Today is the only truly international newsletter. Sign up here.

We are talking about a country where the expression "fai l'uomo" (be a man) abounds, with a society so prone to drama and tragedy and so fond of crime stories as few others, where the expression "crime of passion" is still mistakenly overused.

In this context, the sister of the victim reacted in an unexpected way for a country where femicide is not a crime recognized in the penal code, contrary to what happens, for example, in almost all of Latin America.

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