President Joe Biden, asked last week what his government planned to do to reduce the number of civilian casualties in Gaza, responded by rejecting the idea that the numbers could be trusted. “I have no notion if Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed,” Biden said on Wednesday. “I’m sure innocents have been killed and it is the price of waging war,” he added. “But I have no confidence in the number that Palestinians are using.”
A new analysis by The Intercept provides evidence refuting that claim.
Biden’s effort to delegitimize the numbers coming out of Gaza as fake news has created an opening for defenders of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign to dismiss the crisis; they note that Hamas governs Gaza and therefore runs the Ministry of Health and is inflating the figures. (Biden later clarified he meant to say he didn’t trust Hamas, not all Palestinians, according to the Wall Street Journal.)
Biden’s claim was quickly rejected by human rights organizations that have been active in Gaza for years. The Associated Press noted that the Ministry of Health’s figures from previous conflicts have broadly matched the numbers arrived at by both the Israeli government and the United Nations. And the State Department itself has long considered the numbers reliable.
The Gaza Ministry of Health, meanwhile, responded by publishing a list of names of 6,747 who had died as of October 26 since the bombing campaign began, including 2,664 children. The list included 2,665 children, but The Intercept found that one 14-year-old boy was listed twice, bringing its total down to 6,746. Otherwise the list does not contain duplicates.
Now that the Health Ministry has published a list of victims, skeptics have suggested that the list may be fabricated and that a paper with names on it proves nothing. Immediately after the publishing of these names, Biden’s National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby maintained the skepticism, saying that the ministry is “a front for Hamas” and that “we can’t take anything coming out of Hamas, including the so-called Ministry of Health at face value.”
Pressed, Kirby acknowledged civilian casualties were rising. “We absolutely know that the death toll continues to rise in Gaza. Of course we know that. But what we’re saying is that we shouldn’t rely on numbers put forth by Hamas and the Ministry of Health,” he said. A reporter noted that independent reporting suggested “thousands” of civilians had been killed. “We would not dispute that,” Kirby said.
But is the list itself reliable? We interrogated it and were able to corroborate dozens of names on the ministry’s list through a single family.
Prior to the release of the list, Maram Al-Dada, a Palestinian who was born and raised in Gaza but now lives in Orlando, Florida, had told The Intercept about the deaths of seven relatives on his father’s side of the family and 30 on his mother’s side, in and around Khan Yunis. A week later, that number had risen to 46 total. (He and his family were featured on last week’s Deconstructed podcast.)
We compared the list of his relatives that began to be compiled last week — before the release of the list by officials in Gaza — to the list subsequently made public by the Ministry of Health. Al-Dada and his parents requested that last names not be published, as there is concern in Gaza that Israel has targeted journalists and their families, and might also retaliate against civilians who speak to Western media. The family hopes to emerge from the war with as many relatives still alive as possible.
The list of those killed includes four different last names: 30 members of one branch of the family, nine from another, four from a third, and three from a fourth.
Of those 46 members of Al-Dada’s family so far lost in the war, 43 appear on the list, from the littlest — a baby girl not yet 1 — to the oldest, a 71-year-old grandmother.
When a building is struck, multiple generations are wiped out. “In Palestine, the society is set up differently than it is here,” Al-Dada noted. “People never leave their place. So families are huge; they all stay close to each other. For example, if you have a son, he will get married and he will build a house right behind your house and this keeps going. That’s why you will find a lot of people are getting killed from the same family.”
Each name on the list is the story of a profound tragedy. One family’s home had already been bombed, for instance, and so the father and two children sought refuge at his brother’s house. The wife of the family’s father was in Saudi Arabia, undertaking a pilgrimage to Mecca, when she learned her husband and children had been killed in a new bombing at her brother-in-law’s house. The bombing also killed the man’s brother.
There have also been many close calls. On Monday, the neighbor of Al-Dada’s grandparents was bombed, killing the family living there. A small piece of shrapnel from the explosion tore through a steel grate, blasted through a white chair and destroyed the family’s refrigerator. His grandmother, who was unharmed, had been sitting in that chair just moments earlier. He shared the following photos with us.
A report in HuffPost also found that nearly 20 State Department reports have cited the ministry, and one also argued the ministry may have undercounted. “The numbers are likely much higher, according to the UN and NGOs reporting on the situation,” the U.S. State Department report read.
The Intercept presented the White House with our new reporting and asked if Kirby and Biden stand behind their claims. We also asked whether the administration has made any independent efforts to gauge the extent of the killing if the Health Ministry’s numbers aren’t reliable, and if, as the administration states publicly, it is concerned about civilian casualties. The White House referred us to public comments made by Kirby and State Department spokesperson Matt Miller that acknowledged civilian casualties.
“We don’t have any way to make an accurate assessment of our own about the number of civilians who have died in Gaza,” Miller told reporters. “There is not an independent body that’s operating in Gaza that can provide an accurate number. But we do have skepticism about everything that Hamas says, but that said, obviously a number of civilians have died, which is why we’re working to do everything we can to minimize civilian harm and get humanitarian assistance in to the civilians in Gaza.”
Far from doing everything it can to minimize civilian harm, the Israel Defense Forces has said its “emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.” Amir Avivi, former deputy commander of the Gaza Division of Israel’s military, said recently, “When our soldiers are manoeuvring we are doing this with massive artillery, with 50 aeroplanes overhead destroying anything that moves.”
Al-Dada said his family was firmly apolitical, with zero connections to Hamas. The October 7 attack on Israel surprised them as much as it did the world.
Since Biden muddied the waters on the extent of the carnage, Israel imposed a total communications blackout on Gaza, while ratcheting up its airstrike campaign and launching a ground invasion. U.S. officials have reportedly issued private warnings to the Israeli government but have still not threatened to withdraw any military, political, or economic support. Instead, the Biden administration is putting together a $14 billion package for Israel that includes money for the Iron Dome, replenishment of weapons, and more.
The Ministry of Health in Gaza produced updated figures: As of Tuesday, October 31, at least 8,525 Palestinians have been killed and more than 21,543 injured since October 7.