More than 25,000 women and children killed in Gaza: US defence secretary

Austin’s estimate, in answer to a question by a congressman, is highest-level acknowledgement of Gaza’s huge death toll.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin listens to a speaker during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, on February 29, 2024, in Washington [Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo]

More than 25,000 women and children have been killed in Israel’s war on Gaza since October 7, according to US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, raising questions about the moral and legal aspects of the military tactics used by Tel Aviv.

Speaking during a congressional hearing on Thursday, Austin was asked by Congressman Ro Khanna how many Palestinian women and children had been killed by Israel, replying: “It is over 25,000.”

Israel has been facing mounting criticism over the targeting of residential areas leading to high civilian casualties. Tel Aviv has defended its scorched-earth military strategy despite concerns raised by rights organisations and aid agencies. The International Court of Justice has been hearing a case of genocide against Israel.

Pressed further by Khanna, citing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk’s assertion that any transfer of weapons or ammunition to Israel violated international law, Austin was unable to provide a figure on how many transfers of precision-guided munitions the United States had sent to Israel.

“It’s about 21,000 precision-guided munitions,” said Khanna.

Khanna also questioned Austin on whether he would withdraw military assistance from Israel if it proceeded with a planned ground invasion of Rafah.

Austin responded that there had to be a “credible plan” to ensure the safety of the 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering in the southernmost city.

Displaced Palestinians wait to receive free food at a tent camp, amid food shortages
Displaced Palestinians wait to receive free food at a tent camp, amid food shortages, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 27, 2024 [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

Asked whether he would halt military sales to Israel if it invaded Rafah without a plan, he said that the decision would be made by President Joe Biden.

“I expect that when we provide munitions to allies and partners, that they’ll use them in a responsible way,” said the US defense secretary.

Hours after the hearing, however, Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh refuted Austin’s estimate of the deaths of women and children on the basis that it had come from the Gaza Ministry of Health rather than US intelligence.

“We cannot independently verify these Gaza casualty figures,” said Singh.

The Pentagon also said Austin’s statement referred to the total number of Palestinians killed. On Thursday, the Health Ministry in Gaza had reported that the death toll had surpassed 30,000, including 12,300 children and 8,400 women.

The hearing took place after authorities in Gaza reported that Israeli forces had killed more than 100 people collecting food aid in Gaza, an attack that drew condemnation from rights groups and leaders from around the world.

Israel blamed crowding, trampling and “Gaza truck drivers” for the deaths. But the Israeli version of events changed over the course of the day.

Reporting from occupied East Jerusalem, Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith said the Israeli military “initially tried to pin the blame on the crowd”, saying that dozens were hurt as a consequence of being crushed and trampled in a stampede when aid trucks arrived.

“And then, after some pushing, the Israelis went on to say that their troops felt threatened, that hundreds of troops approached their troops in a way they posed a threat to them so they responded by opening fire,” Smith added. But they didn’t explain how those people posed a threat.

Witnesses insisted that the stampede happened only after Israeli troops started firing at people looking for food.

The White House said the mass shooting “needs to be thoroughly investigated”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies