In this time of war, the health ministry in Gaza has been given its own health warning. Joe Biden has questioned the reliability of its figures for the number of people killed and wounded during the Israeli assault on Gaza – because the health ministry is run by Hamas.
“I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed,” the US president said. “I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s the price of waging a war. But I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.”
On Thursday, the ministry said the Israeli bombing of Gaza had killed 7,028 Palestinians, including 2,913 children, in the nearly three weeks since Hamas killed about 1,400 Israelis and abducted more than 200 others in its cross-border attack.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations called on Biden to apologise for his “shocking and dehumanising” remarks.
The council’s director, Nihad Awad, said: “Journalists have confirmed the high number of casualties, and countless videos coming out of Gaza every day show mangled bodies of Palestinian women and children and entire city blocks levelled to the ground.
“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.”
Luke Baker, a former Reuters bureau chief in Jerusalem, is among those calling on news organisations to show scepticism.
“It seems obvious that any self-respecting news organisation would make clear that Gaza’s health ministry is run by Hamas. Hamas has a clear propaganda incentive to inflate civilian casualties as much as possible. I’m not denying there are civilians being killed,” Baker posted on X.
Others say the ministry has a track record of reliable casualty figures and that it has fallen victim to the propaganda war as Israel seeks to minimise the consequences of its hundreds of bombing raids on Gaza.
In the past, the US state department’s annual human rights report indirectly relied on the same ministry’s casualty figures in quoting UN statistics drawn from Palestinian data.
Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, said he saw no evidence that the numbers were being manipulated.
“We have been monitoring human rights abuses in the Gaza Strip for three decades, including several rounds of hostilities. We’ve generally found the data that comes out of the ministry of health to be reliable,” he said. “When we have done our own independent investigations around particular strikes, and we’ve compared those figures against those from the health ministry, there haven’t been major deviations.
“Their numbers generally are consistent with what we’re seeing on the ground in recent days. There have been hundreds of airstrikes per day in one of the most densely populated areas of the world. We’ve looked at satellite imagery. We’ve seen the number of buildings, and the numbers that are coming out are in line with what we would expect with what we’re seeing on the ground. So you put all those things together and we’re quite confident in the overall casualty numbers.”
Shakir said a grey area was differentiating combatants from civilians among the dead, but that the large proportion of women and children killed was indicative of high civilian casualties. He also said there was a need to draw a distinction between the immediate casualty numbers that came out quickly on any given day and those compiled over time, when there was more clarity.
Gaza health ministry casualty figures have historically tended to be reliable, in part because the names of the dead are carefully documented and the deaths tend to be well known in the territory’s tightly knit communities.
Shakir said: “Generally this data is catalogued in a way that there are detailed breakdowns that include identifying information about each person. That’s part of why we believe this to be reliable.”
A UN official, who declined to be publicly identified, said his agency had used and checked Gaza health ministry data for years. “I have seen nothing that says to me they are making the numbers up. We looked at some of the Israeli bombings and the numbers of deaths the ministry is claiming for a particular attack are broadly in line with what we have seen in previous wars.”
He said the reason for the higher overall casualty figures was because the attackswere “much bigger than anything we’ve seen in previous wars. It’s not that they’re inflating the numbers.”
Shakir said the health ministry had got caught up in the broader battle for public opinion in which Israel has faced its own accusations of manipulating casualty figures and of falsely claiming that unarmed Palestinians killed by the army in the West Bank were combatants.
“Unfortunately, when reality is too difficult to stomach, Israel and so many of its allies prefer to deny it or bury their head in the sand,” Shakir said. “As long as they can create a fog of war and misinformation about what’s taking place, it provides cover for this to continue. To continue to have 100-plus Palestinian children killed every day.”