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."
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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