What to know about Gaza’s death toll data

Revised data from the health ministry turned into a debate about the war’s human cost. That death toll remains devastating.

A Palestinian woman stands amid rubble, her arms  turned upward and a sad expression on her face, in the remains of a city street in Gaza.

Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu via Getty Images Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Amid the chaos of Israel’s assault on Gaza, the United Nations’s humanitarian office has altered how it reports fatalities in the conflict — sparking another round of debate over the toll of Israel’s war in the Palestinian territory in response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

The overall reported death count likely remains very similar to what was previously known: around 35,000 people have been killed. But not all of those people’s identities have been confirmed — and among those that have, there has been a marked decrease in the number of women and children killed in the conflict and an increase in men as a proportion of those killed compared to previous estimated totals. Thousands more remain unidentified, meaning the numbers will change again as health authorities gather that information.

The UN’s update is, in many ways, a reflection of the difficulty of collecting data in a war zone, particularly when the medical system is as severely depleted as it is in Gaza.

In recent months, when detailed age and sex breakdowns were not available, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported fatality numbers from the Hamas-run Gaza Media Office. Now it is only reporting deaths when the body has been identified with a full name and other details by Gaza’s Ministry of Health.

That change led to a decrease in the number of women and children reported killed in the UNOCHA’s May 8 report, from approximately 14,500 children and 9,500 women in its previous reports to 7,797 children and 4,949 women, even as the overall toll remains roughly the same.

The report has occasioned a new round of debate over the war’s toll and how the media has reported it. When the war started, Israeli officials and some US commentators criticized the UN agency for using fatality numbers supplied by official bodies. US President Joe Biden at one point questioned the data, too. After the change in reporting methods, many of those same critics have seized on the new numbers as evidence that the number of women and children killed thus far in the war has been overblown, and that liberal media organizations are too willing to take Hamas’s word on death counts.

But as the report makes clear, the devastation in Gaza, and the deaths from Israel’s offensive, are not in dispute. The UN’s new data offers greater clarity on key details, but the renewed debate it has occasioned risks obscuring the horrors of a war zone where more than 35,000 deaths and severe hunger and disease are besetting the besieged population.

The new data on Gaza’s death toll, briefly explained

In the very beginning of the conflict, specific and detailed data on death tolls was easier to get because the health care system was more or less intact.

But as the Israeli offensive destroyed the territory, especially hospitals, that level of identification became difficult to ascertain in real time — hence the use of estimates via the Gaza Media Office. Only now does it appear that OCHA could report updated identified casualties from the Gaza Health Ministry.

The total number of people killed has not changed, OCHA says — and the initial estimates of over 14,500 children and 9,500 women dead may not change significantly in the long run, either; there are around 10,000 dead people that the health ministry has not yet identified with a first and last name, sex, age, and ID number.

That said, the UN hasn’t yet been able to conduct independent investigations to verify the data, due to the ongoing violence on the ground.

Prior to its revised May 8 report, OCHA and many media outlets — including Vox — reported fatalities in Gaza based on statistics from hospitals still operating in the region, along with media reports, especially in the northern part of Gaza where few hospitals remain fully functional as reported by Gaza’s media office. OCHA is still reporting statistics supplied by Hamas, but those numbers now reflect only people who have been fully identified, the UN Secretary-General’s spokesperson, Farhan Haq, told reporters in Geneva Monday, according to Reuters.

That switch puts the number of confirmed fatalities at 24,686 identified dead people in Gaza as of April — 10,006 men, 7,797 children, 4,959 women, and 1,924 elderly people, according to the Ministry of Health. Then “[t]here’s about another 10,000-plus bodies who still have to be fully identified, and so then the details of those — which of those are children, which of those are women — that will be reestablished once the full identification process is complete,” Haq said, which would bring the total numbers of deaths so far to approximately the 35,000 figure that has been widely reported.

Even this death toll is likely an undercount: By some estimates, there are an additional 10,000 people who may have died but were not taken to a morgue or hospital, or are still trapped under the rubble in Gaza, where, according to the World Bank, about 60 percent of residential buildings have been destroyed.

That speaks to the challenge of being precise and providing real-time data in a war zone. Before the war, Gaza had a robust data collection system. “I think what’s rare, and this is what allowed us to do some of our projection reports early on, is that this was a middle-income territory, so they had really, really good data and data collection systems,” Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins University, told Vox in an interview.

However, seven months into the fighting, many hospitals and health facilities have been decimated. At least 493 health care workers have been killed since the start of the war, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health; as the death toll climbs, there is less and less capacity to record complete data, and authorities have had to look to other data collection methods, such as family reporting, to gather information.

In the earlier part of the conflict, death toll data from all of Gaza’s hospitals and the Palestinian Red Crescent flowed to a central database in al-Shifa hospital, the Associated Press reported in November. Shortly after that story ran, Israeli forces began a multi-day siege and raid on the hospital on the grounds that Hamas used the facility as a logistical hub.

“Compared to most conflicts, these numbers are better than most other conflicts because they had existing systems,” Spiegel said. “But over time, I can say the confidence in the numbers has reduced because the systems can’t function anymore — because they’ve been mostly destroyed.”

The messaging war over the new death count

Some reporting has used the change to cast more general doubt on what we know about the destruction and death in Gaza.

When Israeli news outlet the Jerusalem Post noted the change in reporting in an article May 11, it also cited a report that had cast doubt on the reliability of fatality data from the Gaza Ministry of Health. In the following days, some commentators in the US took those critiques further. For example, Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is perhaps best known for his role in the Iran-Contra affair that involved the Reagan administration lying to the American public and Congress, questioned the entire death toll.

But international organizations have previously considered numbers from the Gaza Ministry of Health to be reliable, and independent post-conflict reporting has typically borne that out.

As Vox’s Keren Landman wrote in November:

Historically — in conflicts in 2008, 2014, and 2021 — the health ministry’s fatality numbers closely matched death tolls resulting from independent research by United Nations humanitarian agencies. The current conflict is far more complex than those prior conflicts were, and far fewer nongovernmental agencies are currently able to do that independent verification work in Gaza. However, it is reasonable to expect that when organizations like B’tselem verify deaths in the future, they will find numbers similar to what the ministry is now releasing — if not higher, given how many people remain unaccounted for.

Death statistics become politically important in the context of any war. Hamas does not release the numbers of its fighters killed, and the Gaza Ministry of Health does not distinguish between combatants and civilians in its death tolls. (Hence the focus on the number of men killed, as a potential proxy for that information.) The new breakdown from the Ministry of Health indicates that more than 10,000 men have been killed and identified in Gaza thus far, though it is unlikely all of those men were militants affiliated with Hamas or another Palestinian group.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nevertheless claimed last week that 14,000 militants had been killed over the course of the war.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Vox in an interview last week: “There’s a consensus that Hamas still has at least half of its fighters in the field,” out of as many as 40,000 fighters at the start of the war.

In reality, we don’t know how many of the dead in Gaza are Hamas militants, or even precisely how many fighters the group had prior to the start of the war. It’s hard to gauge to what extent Israel is achieving its goal of eradicating Hamas and whether those aims justify its invasion of Rafah, the southern city where more than a million displaced Palestinians have been forced to flee.

But both Israel and Hamas have reasons for exaggerating or obscuring parts of the death toll, particularly with the US threatening to cut off weapons to Israel should it launch a large-scale invasion into Rafah.

However, the politicization of these statistics shouldn’t distract from this staggering fact: 35,000 people have been killed in seven months of war. “We know that a tremendous amount of these people are civilians,” Spiegel said. “That’s probably the most important thing.”

Sourse: vox.com

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