Editor’s note: This story contains references and links to graphic images and videos.
Footage of death and destruction in Israel and Gaza is plentiful, disturbing and all too real. At the same time, misinformation about the war has thrived.
There have been verified reports that Hamas, which attacked Israel on Oct. 7, committed violence against children. But one particularly disturbing claim — that the Palestinian militant group beheaded dozens of babies — gained prominence in the days after the massacre, amplified at the U.S. and Israeli governments’ highest levels. This report remains unverified.
Since the attack, the claim has been widely repeated by politicians including President Joe Biden, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.; news outlets, such as CNN, Fox News and the New York Post; Israeli officials, including the prime minister’s office; actor Noah Schnapp and other social media users with large followings.
The war’s devastation has intensified in subsequent days. The Associated Press reported Oct. 20 that in Gaza, Palestinian health authorities said at least 4,137 people have been killed and more than 13,200 injured — including more than 500 deaths in a hospital explosion. In Israel, at least 1,400 people have been killed and 4,500 injured as of Oct. 20. The death toll includes 32 Americans. And Hamas took more than 200 people hostage, NBC News reported.
The confirmed violence is horrible enough. So why did a weakly sourced claim about 40 beheaded babies travel far and wide?
Experts on disinformation and the Middle East pinpointed the emotional response elicited by violence against children, along with a lack of confirmation from official sources.
“Because it is such a shocking claim … it has garnered significant attention as well as attempts to support or rebut,” said Osamah Khalil, a Syracuse University history professor specializing in the modern Middle East and U.S. foreign policy.
PolitiFact examined the claim’s origin and documented how U.S. and Israeli politicians and media repeated it and walked it back.
Claim originates with a field report
The claim that Hamas beheaded 40 babies traces back to an Israeli reporter’s on-air comments.
On Oct. 10, three days after Hamas’ attack on Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel, the Israel Defense Forces, the nation’s military, allowed news outlets to report from the ravaged site. Reporter Nicole Zedeck of i24 News, an Israeli news channel, said Israeli soldiers told her infants had been killed in 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,” Zedeck said during her English-language broadcast from Kfar Aza.
Also Oct. 10, Zedeck posted on X that “one of the commanders told me they saw babies’ heads cut off.” Thirty-five minutes later, she posted again, saying “soldiers told me they believe 40 babies/children were killed.”
She did not say Hamas beheaded 40 babies, but several news outlets and social media posts conflated those reports.
On Oct. 11, United Kingdom news outlets ran headlines declaring that Hamas had beheaded 40 babies. Some American media outlets, including CNN, Fox News and the New York Post, repeated the claim that babies had been beheaded, citing Israeli media or the prime minister’s office as sources.
On Telegram on Oct. 11, Hamas dismissed “the false claims promoted by some Western media outlets, such as Palestinian freedom fighters killing children and targeting civilians,” without mentioning beheadings specifically.
Evidence disputed Hamas’ broad rebuttal, however: Women, children and older people were among the thousands killed or wounded in the militant group’s surprise attack, ABC News and The New York Times reported. Multiple news outlets have reported that women were among the people Hamas kidnapped.
The militant group “has repeatedly said that it does not intentionally target or kill women and children,” despite the overwhelming evidence contradicting this claim, Khalil said.
Israeli and U.S. officials repeated the claim, then gave it distance
Political leaders, first in Israel, then the U.S., gave the beheadings claim more credibility early on. But officials then amended their statements, which increased confusion.
On Oct. 11, a spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CNN that babies and toddlers were found in Kfar Aza with their “heads decapitated.” The next morning, CNN reported that the Israeli government could not confirm the claim that Hamas beheaded babies, contradicting the prime minister’s office’s previous statement.
President Joe Biden also repeated the claim during an Oct. 11 roundtable with Jewish leaders, saying, “I never really thought that I would see and have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children.”
But Biden had neither seen photos nor received confirmation that Hamas beheaded babies or children, the White House later told CNN. Biden was referring to public comments from media outlets and Israeli officials.
Biden was more careful in his Oct. 18 remarks in Israel: “Children slaughtered. Babies slaughtered. Entire families massacred. Rape, beheadings, bodies burned alive.”
Netanyahu said during Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Biden’s visits to Israel that Hamas beheaded people, but Netanyahu did not say whether the victims were infants.
The Israeli prime minister’s office shared Oct. 12 photos of babies it said were “murdered and burned” by Hamas. The post did not depict beheadings.
Blinken said he was shown documentation of “an infant riddled with bullets, soldiers beheaded, young people burned alive” during his Oct. 12 visit.
When asked about the authenticity of the images of dead children Netanyahu had shared, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Oct. 12, “I don’t think we’re in the business of having to validate or approve those kinds of images. They’re from the prime minister of Israel and we have no reason to doubt their authenticity.”
The i24 News reporter said the claim came from Israeli soldiers, but the Israel Defense Forces had not confirmed how many babies were killed or if any were beheaded. On Oct. 12, an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson told PolitiFact that the attack on Kfar Aza was “a massacre in which women, children, toddlers and elderly were brutally butchered in an ISIS way of action.”
How the claim became so pervasive
The speed at which information was shared following Hamas’ attack vastly outpaced journalists’ and researchers’ ability to verify or raise questions about what happened.
“It’s all tied to the lack of certified trustworthy information,” said Dina Sadek, Mideast research fellow for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “(It) lets people speculate and believe a lot of things that they’re seeing on the internet before waiting for official confirmation.”
The beheadings claim traced back to a reporter who said she was relaying soldiers’ firsthand accounts. But other journalists on the ground in Kfar Aza, including Oren Ziv of +972 Magazine, which covers Israel and Palestine, and Samuel Forey of the French news outlet Le Monde, said their reporting did not corroborate this report.
During the tour through Kfar Aza, Ziv said he saw no evidence that Hamas beheaded babies, “and the army spokesperson or commanders also didn’t mention any such incidents,” he posted on X. Ziv said journalists in Kfar Aza were allowed to talk to hundreds of soldiers without supervision from the Israel Defense Forces’ communication team.
Similarly, Forey said, “No one told me about beheadings, even less about beheaded children, even less about 40 beheaded children.” Forey said emergency services personnel he spoke with had not seen any decapitated bodies. (Forey’s X posts were translated from French to English.)
Given this topic’s heaviness and polarizing nature, Khalil, the Syracuse University professor, cautioned that “all claims and denials should be treated with skepticism and verified as much as possible.”
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