A senior Biden administration official said the death toll of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is likely far higher than the 10,000 number being reported by the health ministry amid Israel’s war against Hamas.
Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told a House panel that those killed over one month into the war are likely “higher than is being cited.”
President Biden and Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress have cast doubt that the Gaza Health Ministry is able to provide an accurate death toll from the Strip while under the control and coercion of Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
Leaf acknowledged that the ministry does not differentiate between civilians and Hamas combatants in its death toll – “they mingle them,” she said. But, she underscored that the cost of Israel’s military operations on the besieged Strip, coupled with Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields, has been devastating.
“In this period of conflict and conditions of war, it is very difficult for any of us to assess what the rate of casualties are,” she said during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “We think they’re very high, frankly, and it could be that they’re even higher than are being cited.”
“We’ll know only after the guns fall silent. We take in sourcing from a variety of folks who are on the ground,” she added. “I can’t stipulate to one figure or another, it’s very possible they’re even higher than is being reported.”
Leaf was testifying before the panel on the U.S. response to supporting Israel as it carries out its war, vowing to eliminate the terrorist organization after it brutally massacred an estimated 1,400 people over the course of a few days — largely civilians — and took more than 240 people hostage, whose conditions and whereabouts remain unknown.
Leaf defended Biden’s decision to hold back on pressuring Israel to a cease-fire, despite the mounting death toll of Palestinians and a humanitarian crisis in the Strip where water, food, medicine, electricity and fuel are nearly absent for an estimated 2 million people — half of which are said to be children.
Instead, the administration is pushing for Israel to agree to humanitarian or tactical pauses that would allow for the recovery of some hostages, exit of foreign nationals — including those from the U.S. — and to allow the entry of humanitarian aid for civilians.
Leaf said Hamas has “repeatedly impeded” U.S., Egyptian and Israeli efforts to get foreign nationals out of the Gaza Strip and humanitarian aid inside.
She noted that Hamas’s military leader in the region, Yahya Sinwar, has given no signal that he would respect a cease-fire or is serious about releasing hostages. Leaf further warned that given the opportunity, Hamas would carry out a similar attack to the one the group launched against Israel on Oct. 7.
“To call a ceasefire right now that might or might not be honored by Hamas, would be to leave Hamas in control of some 240 hostages, including babies and children, and would also leave fairly well in tact, much of the military infrastructure and warfighting capacity and terrorism capacity of Hamas in tact,” she said.
But, Leaf added, “the suffering in Gaza among civilians is wrenching, it’s emotionally wrenching for all of us who are working on this issue. It is wrenching for the governments and publics in the Middle East who are watching this.”
Dana Stroul, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, testified alongside Leaf and laid out boundaries of international humanitarian law, which the administration has said they expect and view Israel as working to operate within, and that Hamas has violated.
“One can not deliberately target civilians or civilian objects, one cannot use civilians as human shields, attacks cannot be indiscriminate, one cannot rape, torture or mutilate, one cannot take hostages and attacks cannot cause excessive loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects in relation to their military advantage are prohibited,” Stroul said.
“Hamas — there is documented evidence, there are plenty of images out there, some of it Hamas has put out itself to praise its use of terror tunnels, its obfuscation of weapons and rockets inside civilian structures including hospitals, mosques and schools,” she added.
When asked by Foreign Affairs Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) if Hamas had violated international humanitarian law, had committed war crimes and genocide, Leaf and Stroul both answered “Yes.”
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Author: Laura Kelly