US Officials and Media Keep Spreading False Gaza Death Info

Pro-war voices spent the past few days gleefully seizing on an erroneous report to claim that the UN had cut the death toll for Palestinian women and children in half. The lie is still spreading like wildfire as you read this.

Joe Scarborough speaks at the Sheraton New York on April 11, 2024 in New York City. (John Lamparski / Getty Images)

From its very start, the Israeli war on Gaza has seen a whirlwind of fake news and misinformation intended to keep the mass slaughter of Palestinians going as long as possible, often promulgated by mainstream media and powerful officials going right up to the president. The past few days have seen one of the most glaring examples yet.

Yesterday, a game-changing revelation spread like wildfire through the pro-Israel community: the United Nations had quietly halved the number of women and kids that it concluded were killed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). First reported by right-wing Israeli paper the Jerusalem Post on May 11, the report concerned two of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) regular death toll updates in particular, with one May 6 report putting the number of women and children killed at 9,500 and 14,500, respectively, and the agency revising these numbers down to 4,959 and 7,797 two days later.

The shocking rate at which Israel has killed Palestinian civilians, children in particular, has been core to the rising global disgust at the war, while Israeli officials have all but declared war against the UN, in an attempt to delegitimize a body long critical of their policies. The war’s boosters eagerly seized on this new revelation.

Unfortunately for them — and, more importantly, unfortunately for Gazans — it wasn’t.

Here is the source of the error: the supposedly revised death toll wasn’t actually a revised death toll. As anyone who had looked at the documents in question can plainly read, the “halved” figures in the May 8 OCHA update were not referring to the total number of women and kids killed, but were part of a smaller figure within the overall death toll: the number of those killed who had been “identified as of 30 April,” as the text makes clear. Of the nearly thirty-five thousand killed, the UN was saying, here is the number of people who were able to be definitively identified, and here’s how that breaks down by age and sex.

In other words, these were two separate numbers: one giving the estimated total women and children that have been killed by Israel over the past seven months, which is the much larger number we’re familiar with. The other gave us how many of the total Palestinians killed had been actually identified with full details, and then told us how many of that smaller figure were women and children. Pro-war commentators looked at that second set of figures and, whether accidentally or purposefully, misconstrued it for the first.

This could have been easily avoided with some basic fact-checking and simply adding up the respective death tolls for the “identified” men, women, children, and elderly; they would have noticed this sum didn’t remotely equal the total number of “reported fatalities” listed above — a clue that these numbers were not meant to represent the full, total count of women and children killed. Or they could have simply taken note of the fact that there were two different death tolls listed, that they were clearly labeled as such, that one was obviously indicated as a subset of the other, and so on. It took effort to get this wrong.

But get it wrong is exactly what numerous influential people and news outlets did — in the exact same way, at almost the same time.

The full chain of events is easy to reconstruct. On May 11 in the early evening, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) — an influential, hawkish think tank funded by right-wing billionaires — put out a flash brief publicizing the Jerusalem Post report, its experts charging that the results proved a “lack of evidence” for the overall Palestinian death toll, and that the UN was “rectify[ing] the casualty figures” that had “bolstered Hamas’s position and increased its chances of survival.”

The next day, just before noon ET, the similarly influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) published a blog post claiming the Jerusalem Post story proved the official death toll was merely “Hamas propaganda.” A few hours after that, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough — whose Morning Joe show reportedly has the personal ear of the president, despite having served as a fountain of misinformation during this war — shared the story, concluding that “the Hamas figures repeatedly cited are false,” in a tweet that has been viewed nearly four million times at the time of writing.

Headline from Elliott Abrams’s CFR piece.

Incidentally, the author of that CFR blog post was Elliott Abrams, a war criminal whose job in the Reagan administration was to relentlessly dissemble and bullshit Congress and the public so that the then president could keep illegally supporting brutal right-wing guerrillas in Central America (a scandalous operation that was, itself, the brainchild of Israeli officials).

Since then, the dubious story has been picked up and rebroadcast by USA Today, the National Interest, the Daily Mail, and Fox News, as well as explicitly neoconservative outlets like Commentary and the Daily Wire. Its questionable conclusions have also been shared in one form or another by a host of influential voices: a US senator and several congressmembers both Republican and Democrat, including Jared Moskowitz, one of the House Democrats behind Congress’s alarmingly authoritarian antisemitism bill (“There is NO GENOCIDE! Good luck to the people that have been supporting that false narrative,” he tweeted about the story) — even a Portuguese MP from the country’s Socialist Party.

Others who have seized on the story include far-right influencer Laura Loomer, Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali, hawkish former congressman Adam Kinzinger, and Charlie Sykes, a right-wing former radio host who’s now a commentator on MSNBC by virtue of having criticisms of Donald Trump. Also jumping on it was the Democratic Majority for Israel, a super PAC linked to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs lobby that exists to pour unlimited amounts of money into defeating left-wing candidates critical of Israel.

The story continues to be shared widely as I write this, even after a UN secretary-general spokesperson matter-of-factly explained yesterday the error that the war’s cheerleaders were making.

“What’s changed is the Ministry of Health in Gaza has updated the breakdown of fatalities, for whom full details have been documented,” he told reporters. “So what they recently published was that they gave figures for 24,686 out of 34,622 overall fatalities recorded in Gaza. And those 24,686 people are the ones for whom full details have been documented.”

Despite this, none of these tweets and reports have been deleted or corrected at the time of this writing. They are still up, being viewed and shared by people who have no idea, and will likely never even learn, that they were spreading nonsense.

Only a few news outlets reported the UN’s denials at the time and pushed back on the misinformation, including Reuters, CNN, Haaretz, and the Guardian. It’s easy to see why. Outlets like Fox and Commentary pointedly mentioned the Biden administration’s recent performative restriction of some weapons shipments to Israel in their stories, a measure driven by public outrage over the Palestinian death toll — implying the president should reverse the move and certainly not seriously consider actually putting a stop to Israel’s war effort. Still, marvel at the perversity of minds that seem to believe that thirteen thousand women and children being killed is a perfectly acceptable, exculpatory figure for Israel’s military.

In any case, the Palestinian death toll is very likely a vast undercount. Not only are there thousands trapped under the rubble in Gaza who are not included in the OCHA death toll, but Israel’s systematic destruction of the territory’s hospitals and periodic communication blackouts have led to large gaps in the reporting of deaths.

This is why, despite the fact that Israel has continued regularly wiping out whole Palestinian families, despite the spread of disease and collapse of the health sector, and despite the territory now being engulfed in “full-blown famine” — so that a perfectly healthy US doctor who has only been in Gaza briefly is already on an IV drip to prevent dehydration — “only” five thousand Palestinians have officially died in the two and a half months since the end of February.

As always, the most potent, far-reaching, and deadly misinformation so often comes from exactly those voices we’re told are the most trusted, like think tanks respected in Washington, elected officials, and certain mainstream news outlets. It’s for this reason the recent push to control and censor the information transmitted on social media will likely only accelerate — all for the sake of allowing one of the most heinous crimes we’ve seen this century to go on and on.