[of the casualties]

Biden yet again says Hamas beheaded babies. Has new evidence emerged?

— President Biden, remarks at a news conference, Nov. 15

“Children slaughtered. Babies slaughtered. Entire families massacred. Rape, beheadings, bodies burned alive.”

— Biden, remarks in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18

“I never really thought that I would see, have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children.”

— Biden, remarks with Jewish leaders, Oct. 11

Shortly after Hamas militants attacked and killed civilians in Israel on Oct. 7, President Biden made a comment that the White House later walked back — that he had seen “confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children.”

Biden appeared to be echoing a statement made that same day by a spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — that babies and toddlers were found with their “heads decapitated” in Kfar Aza, a kibbutz. The next day, the Israeli government said it could not confirm the report made by Netanyahu’s office.

“There have been cases of Hamas militants carrying out beheadings and other ISIS-style atrocities. However, we cannot confirm if the victims were men or women, soldiers or civilians, adults or children,” an official told CNN. The White House also acknowledged that Biden had not seen any photos or received confirmation but that he was repeating what he had seen in the news.

The second time Biden made reference to it, while visiting Israel, his language was more careful. He did not necessarily say babies were beheaded, just that there were beheadings. There had been at least one report of an adult Thai worker being beheaded with a garden hoe. Yossi Landau, a commander with the first-responder organization ZAKA (a Hebrew acronym for “Disaster Victim Identification”), confirmed to The Fact Checker that he had seen the victim himself.

So it was striking when Biden recently revived the notion that Hamas “were cutting babies’ heads off.” To be clear, the militants killed civilians of all ages indiscriminately and in horrific ways, including tossing explosive devices into shelters and shooting unarmed people as they fled — acts that Human Rights Watch has labeled war crimes after verifying video evidence. Atrocities are not acts to rank in order of brutality. Still, the image of beheaded babies remains the most vivid in an attack that in turn led Israel to invade Gaza in a campaign that the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry says has claimed the lives of more than 4,600 children. An exacting account of any such claims is warranted, but here we examine the facts regarding this particular taboo and especially gruesome act.

In many conflicts, there are reports of atrocities against babies or children. As horrific as any such atrocities are, accounts can be exaggerated.

The British during World War I, based on thin evidence, asserted that German soldiers had raped nurses, cut off women’s breasts, bayoneted babies and chopped the hands off little children. The reports influenced public opinion in the United States against the Germans — but after the war, little evidence was found to support claims of attacks on children. In World War II, however, German armed forces engaged in extensive war crimes, including the slaughter of civilians and the extermination of Jews of all ages.

The United States in 1990 claimed that Iraqi forces, after invading Kuwait, had pulled babies from incubators and left them to die. This story stemmed from emotional testimony before a congressional hearing, in which a 15-year-old girl, known only as Nayirah, sobbingly described seeing this with her own eyes. She was later identified as the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, and no witnesses or evidence were ever found to support her story.

It’s too soon in the Israel-Gaza war to make a definitive assessment. The Israeli prime minister’s office has said about 1,200 people were killed on Oct. 7, down from an initial estimate of 1,400, but it’s unclear how many were civilians or soldiers. As of Nov. 19, the Haaretz newspaper has published the names of 778 civilians as having perished in the attacks, though few children are identified. Karen Pakes of the Israeli prime minister’s office told The Fact Checker she is working on creating an official list of how many children died that day. She said 34 children under the age of 18 were taken hostage.

The manner of death in many cases is still unclear.

“We are still waiting for forensic evidence about the destruction of life and property in border settlements and cars: was all of that caused by the light arms and RPGs Hamas fighters had with them, or was some of it caused by the tank artillery and Hellfire missiles employed in retaking them?” said Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi, author of “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine,” in an interview with The Fact Checker.

Initially, it appeared that reports about the babies stemmed from inaccurate social media accounts of an Oct. 10 newscast by an Israeli reporter who toured Kfar Aza with Israeli soldiers three days after the attack. “The Israeli military still says they don’t have a clear number [of the casualties], but I’m talking to some of the soldiers, and they say what they’ve witnessed is they’ve been walking through these different houses, these different communities — babies, their heads cut off. That’s what they said,” Nicole Zedeck of i24 News reported.

In a social media post, she said: “Soldiers told me they believe 40 babies/children were killed.” That quickly got conflated on social media as 40 babies being beheaded, which is not what Zedeck reported.

Another Israeli reporter on the same press tour, Oren Ziv, urged caution. “During the tour we didn’t see any evidence of this, and the army spokesperson or commanders also didn’t mention any such incidents,” he posted. He said Zedeck quoted unnamed soldiers, while other soldiers he spoke to did not confirm the account.

Nevertheless, Marc Owen Jones, an academic who researches disinformation about the Middle East, reported that posts on X about “40 murdered babies” garnered at least 44 million impressions, 300,000 likes and over 100,000 reposts within a day.

When Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel on Oct. 12, he told reporters that the Israeli government had shown him photographs that depicted “a baby, an infant, riddled with bullets. Soldiers beheaded. Young people burned alive in their cars or in their hideaway rooms.”

The Israeli government then released graphic images that claimed to show babies were burned, but still did not officially confirm decapitations of infants.

If Hamas, a disciplined militia group, engaged in beheadings, it would be a new terror tactic for the organization. Experts said Hamas has not previously been tied to beheadings.

“This was very unusual and inconsistent for Hamas in terms of their previous tactics,” said Dawn Perlmutter, director of the Symbol Intelligence Group and the author of “Investigating Religious Terrorism and Ritualistic Crimes.” But she said the hundreds of beheading videos posted by the Islamic State were easily available, and so could have influenced a younger generation of militants. “They are online like everyone else.”

Tareq Baconi, president of the board of Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian policy organization, and the author of a 2018 history of Hamas, also said that beheadings were out of character for the organization. “I’ve never come across anything by Hamas on beheadings, and don’t believe this was ever a practice they engaged in,” he said.

“I have never encountered anything about beheadings in my research on Hamas,” said Sara Roy, author of several books on the Gaza Strip and Hamas and a research associate at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

It’s possible that the breach in the wall around Gaza allowed Palestinians not associated with Hamas to opportunistically join the attacks. In 2011, two teenagers affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine killed five members of a West Bank settler family and did decapitate a 3-month-old baby. There is also an abundant history, through the centuries, of soldiers decapitating their enemies. The Bible claims the head of John the Baptist was delivered on a silver platter.

After Zedeck’s report, Hamas on Oct. 11 issued a statement on Telegram. It did not specifically address beheadings but said this: “The Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas has strongly dismissed the false claims promoted by some Western media outlets, such as Palestinian freedom fighters killing children and targeting civilians.” That denial was soon contradicted by video and photographic evidence released by the Israeli government.

An Israeli official who was present during the presentation to Blinken said he had seen photographic evidence of babies who were burned to death or riddled with bullets, but he has not seen photos of beheaded babies. In an interview, he said “numerous first responders” since have testified that there is evidence of babies who were beheaded. Despite the confusion surrounding the initial reports, he said, he was told that there is now confirmation that it happened. He acknowledged that he was unaware of Hamas previously engaging in beheadings.

Eylon Levy, an Israeli government spokesman, pointed The Fact Checker to two public statements.

In a video posted on Oct. 26, Israel Defense Forces Col. Golan Vach told reporters that at Kibbutz Beeri he had encountered a woman shot in the back, who was covering a “small baby” about 1 or 2 years old. “The baby was decapitated,” he said. “I carried the baby in my own hands.” Asked why there were no photographs, he replied: “People ask me how come you did not take a picture. I said: ‘I’m sorry, I have children. I have limitations. I have limits. I do not take a picture of a decapitated baby.’” He also said a soldier had been beheaded at Kfar Aza.

Then, on Oct. 28, Eli Beer, president and founder of United Hatzalah of Israel, a first-responder organization, told the Republican Jewish Committee: “I saw little kids who were beheaded. We didn’t know which head belongs to which kid.” He did not describe the ages. He also said he saw the dead body of a pregnant woman whose fetus had been ripped from her womb and stabbed. Landau of ZAKA, in an interview, said he witnessed the same grim scene.

We sought additional comment from Vach and Beer but did not get a response.

Hamas spokesman Abdul Majid Awad did not respond to a request for comment.

“The president was speaking about Israeli reports of babies being beheaded,” a White House official said.

Almost eight weeks after the Hamas attack, details are still sparse on claims of beheading of babies. One IDF official says he found a decapitated baby; a first responder says “little kids” were beheaded, though an exact number was not provided. Forensic records that would document the cause of death have not been released. There also are reports of at least two beheadings of adults — a soldier and a Thai worker. First responders say they viewed these bodies.

There is little dispute that many of the civilians killed by militants on Oct. 7 died in especially brutal ways. But caution is still warranted, especially at the presidential level, about statements that babies were beheaded. The available evidence does not need exaggeration.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post