By Brett Wilkins / Common Dreams
The largest Muslim American civil rights group on Wednesday led condemnation of U.S. President Joe Biden for saying he had “no confidence” in Palestinian health officials’ Gaza casualty reports—figures deemed reliable by United Nations agencies, human rights groups, international and Israeli mainstream media, and even the U.S. State Department.
Speaking at a Wednesday afternoon White House press conference, Biden—who earlier this month declared his “rock-solid and unwavering” commitment to Israel following a Hamas-led attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis—said that “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed.”
“Everyone uses the figures from the Gaza Health Ministry because those are generally proven to be reliable.”
“I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s the price of waging a war,” the president continued. “But I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.”
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Responding to Biden’s remarks, Palestinian American poet, author, and activist Remi Kanazi said: “Genocide denial has a long sordid history. Israel and Joe Biden know exactly what they are doing when they play down the death toll in Gaza.”
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) demanded Biden apologize for his “shocking and dehumanizing” comments.
“The Israeli government has openly admitted that it is targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure,” CAIR executive director Nihad Awad said in a statement. “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 leveled 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,” said Awad. “They are neither. Biden should apologize for his comments, condemn the Israeli government for deliberately targeting civilians, and demand a cease-fire before more innocent people die.”
After former U.S. Congressman Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who is Palestinian American, said that “several” of his relatives including an infant cousin were among at least 18 people killed in last week’s Israeli airstrike on the Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church, journalist Briahna Joy Gray asked Wednesday if Biden thinks he’s lying.
While it is nearly impossible to immediately verify Gaza casualties because Israel does not allow foreign journalists into the besieged strip, many experts say figures provided by Palestinian health officials—including branches of the Palestinian Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank—are accurate. They say not only do U.N. agencies, international media, and Israeli news outlets rely upon them, but that the Israeli government and military have rarely if ever challenged the figures following the numerous wars Israel has waged against Gaza in recent decades.
“Everyone uses the figures from the Gaza Health Ministry because those are generally proven to be reliable,” Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “In the times in which we have done our own verification of numbers for particular strikes, I’m not aware of any time which there’s been some major discrepancy.”
“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 in a separate interview with The Guardian. “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.”
Mohammed El-Kurd, The Nation‘s Palestine correspondent, wrote that Biden’s denial “isn’t just racism. He’s preemptively minimizing the scale of death the Israeli regime has planned for Gaza.”
Calls to “flatten Gaza” began immediately—in both Israel and the United States—after Hamas’ horrific mass murder and abduction of Israeli and foreign citizens on October 7.
Tally Gotliv, a member of parliament from Netanyahu’s Likud party, posted on social media: “It’s time to kiss doomsday. Shooting powerful missiles without limit. Not flattening a neighborhood. Crushing and flattening Gaza… Without mercy! Without mercy!”
Dehumanization of Palestinians flourished, with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant calling Gazans “human animals” and Israeli President Isaac Herzog asserting that there are “no innocent civilians in Gaza.”
Meanwhile, some Israelis—especially young people—took to TikTok and other social media to post racist videos mocking Palestinians and gaslighting victims of Israel’s attacks on Gaza by claiming grieving mothers were lying about their children being killed.
Perhaps most ominously of all, Ariel Kallner, another Likud lawmaker, called for a “Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of ’48,” a reference to the forced expulsion and ethnic cleansing of over 750,000 Arabs from Palestine during the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1947-49.
In a likely war crime—one of many, according to Amnesty International—compared with Nakba massacres like Deir Yassin and the Lydda Death March, Israeli officials ordered 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza to flee for their lives ahead of an expected ground invasion and possible territorial conquest. Israeli forces then attacked the fleeing Gazans anyway. Around 70 people, mostly women and children, were killed in an October 13 strike on a fleeing convoy.
Nowhere is safe. Al Jazeera Gaza bureau chief Wael Al-Dahdouh lost his wife, son, daughter, and 18-month-old grandson in an October 25 Israeli airstrike on a shelter in an area meant to be out of harm’s way. They were killed after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken—who has also cast doubt on the Gaza death toll—reportedly asked the Qatari government, which funds Al Jazeera, to “tone down” its coverage of Israel’s Gaza slaughter.
As of Thursday, Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza has killed at least 6,850 people, including nearly 3,000 children, according toPalestinian health officials in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. More than 17,000 others have been wounded, nearly half the homes in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed, and over 1.4 million people have been displaced.
Hundreds of international legal scholars, and one of Israel’s leading Holocaust scholars, have accused Israel of committing “genocide” in Gaza.
In the illegally occupied West Bank, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed more than 100 Palestinians and wounded nearly 2,000 others since October 7.
Scores of journalists and health workers have also been killed by Israeli strikes on Gaza. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said earlier this week that 35 of its humanitarian workers—many of them teachers—died in Israeli attacks.
Some observers noted Israel’s long history of denying atrocities or blaming victims for their own deaths. Recent examples include lyingabout killing civilians, using banned white phosphorus weapons in urban areas, and the deliberate killing of Palestinian American Al Jazeerareporter Shireen Abu Akleh.
Israeli leaders have also targeted prominent international figures who, like U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, dare point out that Hamas terrorism “did not happen in a vacuum” and were the result of generations of illegal occupation, settler colonization, economic strangulation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid.
“Regardless of how many noncombatants Israel has blown to smithereens, for Netanyahu to deny them water is a war crime,” U.S. Middle East expert and Informed Comment publisher Juan Cole notedThursday.
“The ongoing genocide against the civilian population of Gaza, perpetrated by the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, is an embarrassment for the United States,” he added, “which fully supports this reckless disregard for the lives of innocent noncombatants—men, women, and children.”
Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams.