Lloyd Austin speaks during a House hearing

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a February 29, 2024 House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Pentagon Backpedals After Austin Says Israel Killed 'Over 25,000' Women and Kids in Gaza

A Pentagon spokesperson claimed the defense secretary was citing the total number of Palestinians killed by Israel—but the numbers don't add up.

The Pentagon attempted damage control Thursday after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during a congressional hearing that "over 25,000" Palestinian women and children have been killed during Israel's 146-day assault on Gaza.

Austin's remark came in reply to a question from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) during a House Armed Services Committee hearing focused on his recent hospitalization for prostate cancer and his dayslong delay in informing President Joe Biden and members of Congress of his whereabouts.

"About how many Palestinian women and children have been killed by Israel since October 7?" Khanna asked, referring to the date when Israel launched its retaliatory war on Gaza immediately following the Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel.

Austin replied, "It's over 25,000."

Within hours, Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh attempted to walk back her boss' admission, claiming Austin was citing figures by the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health and that the defense secretary was referring to the total number of Palestinians killed in Gaza.

However, Singh's explanation did not add up. According to the Gaza Ministry of Health figures cited by The Times of Israel Thursday, Israeli forces have killed a total of at least 30,189 Palestinians in Gaza since October 7. Of these, at least 13,230 are children and 8,860 are women, for a total of 22,090. Palestinian health officials say that at least 10,000 other people are missing and presumed dead and buried beneath the rubble of bombed buildings, and that even that figure is probably a significant undercount. Assuming even half of the missing people are women and children—who account for 73% of known deaths—then the number of women and children killed far exceeds 25,000.

In late October, U.S. President Joe Biden was accused of genocide denial after he said he had "no confidence" in Palestinian officials' casualty figures—even though such data has been deemed reliable by United Nations agencies, human rights groups, Israeli and international media, and even the Biden administration in past reports on Israeli attacks on Gaza.

In November, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf contradicted Biden by asserting that the Gaza death toll may be "even higher" than reported.

Leaf's assessment came during a congressional hearing interrupted by CodePink peace activists. Members of the women-led anti-war group were again present at Austin's hearing, during which Khanna also noted that the United States has provided 21,000 precision-guided munitions to Israel.

"The secretary of defense is supporting a genocide," CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin said before being removed from the hearing.

Separately on Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matt Miller responded awkwardly during a press conference when pressed by Palestinian journalist Said Arikat on why "it so difficult for this government to say we condemn the killing of Palestinian women and children."

"We don't wanna see anyone die," Miller answered during a four-minute exchange with Arikat in which the spokesperson refused to say the word "condemn" and blamed Hamas for the more than 100,000 Palestinians killed or maimed by U.S.-backed Israeli forces.

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