Pentagon Chief Stumbles Over The Number Of Palestinians Killed By Israel

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that Israeli forces had killed over 25,000 women and children in Gaza — but the Pentagon walked back his remark, saying Austin was referring to Palestinian health officials’ count of all Palestinians killed since Oct. 7.

Austin’s comment came the same day Palestinian health officials said the death toll in Gaza surpassed 30,000 people.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee Thursday, Austin was asked about the death toll by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.)

“About how many Palestinian women and children have been killed by Israel since Oct. 7?” Khanna asked.

“It’s over 25,000,” Austin responded.

After Austin’s remark during the hearing, a Pentagon spokesperson hedged on the figure, saying Austin was using numbers from Palestinian officials and referring to all Palestinians killed, not just women and children.

“During the hearing today, Secretary Austin was asked how many women and children have died in Gaza,” Sabrina Singh, the deputy press secretary, told The Jerusalem Post. “To clarify, the Secretary’s answer was citing an estimate from the Hamas-controlled health ministry that more than 25,000 total Palestinians have been killed in Gaza. We cannot independently verify these Gaza casualty figures.”

During a Pentagon press briefing after the hearing, Department of Defense Press Secretary Pat Ryder said “we’re dependent on open-source information, like many of you. We’re certain that thousands of people have been killed, but as for the specific numbers, we cannot verify those specific statistics.”

The secretary’s comments came as a surprise given the United States’ public skepticism toward casualty figures from Gaza: President Joe Biden infamously said in late October last year, “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed.” (HuffPost reported afterward that internal U.S. assessments frequently cited the Gaza health ministry’s statistics.)

Palestinian health officials said Thursday that the death toll in the Gaza Strip had passed 30,000 after Israeli troops reportedly fired on a crowd of Palestinians waiting for aid in Gaza City.

Health officials don’t distinguish between combatants and civilians in their casualty figures, but as The Associated Press reported, the health ministry “says women and children make up around two-thirds of those killed.” That would put the number of women and children killed at around 20,000.

But news outlets also regularly note that death toll figures from Gaza may undercount the full scope of killing — for example, people presumed to be buried under rubble caused by Israeli air strikes.