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Conflicting death tolls cloud the human impact of the Israel-Gaza war

The Gaza Ministry of Health says over 7,300 people have been killed, a figure questioned by Israel, the US and Germany

Guerra Israel Hamás
Palestinians killed in the war placed in front of Al Najjar Hospital in Gaza, October 24, 2023. Abed Rahim Khatib (DPA / Europa Press)

The number of fatalities caused by the Israeli assault on Gaza has become a propaganda tool for both Israel and Hamas to influence international public opinion. According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, the death toll is now over 7,300 people, which is five times the number of people killed by the Hamas surprise attack in southern Israel on October 7. But the hermetic Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip makes it near impossible to independently verify casualty information. The United States, Israel and Germany have questioned data provided by a Gaza ministry controlled by Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. But the Gaza Health Ministry has been a reliable information source in past conflicts for many international organizations, including the U.S. State Department.

“I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed. I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s the price of waging a war... But I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using,” said President Joe Biden on October 25. Hours after Biden’s statement, the Gaza Ministry of Health published a list of 7,028 people with names (except for 281 unidentified victims) of which 2,913 are children. The 212-page document posted on the ministry’s website (now inaccessible due to the internet blackout) does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, and includes the identity number of each “martyr,” as the Palestinians call casualties of the conflict with Israel.

The Gaza Health Ministry says its report is based on a “computerized hospital information system” that registers everyone who arrives at their facilities, dead or alive. Private hospitals that don’t have access to this system must fill out a death report and send it to the Ministry of Health within 24 hours. The ministry’s report clarifies that the reported number of fatalities does not include people who are still missing, victims who were never taken to a hospital, and cases where hospitals were unable to complete the fatality reports. “For these reasons, the actual number of martyrs is hundreds more than the figure indicated,” stated the ministry’s report.

“The numbers from the Gaza Ministry of Health are generally reliable,” said Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) director for Israel and Palestine. HRW has been working in the Palestinian territories for over 30 years. “We have verified specific attacks ourselves and found that the numbers generally match the figures provided by the ministry,” said Shakir, who adds that HRW, the United Nations and the U.S. State Department all cite the ministry’s numbers in their reports. Shakir also points to “the devastation seen in satellite images, video and interviews, which aligns with the ministry’s numbers.” Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), stated in recent press conference at the agency’s Jerusalem headquarters that in previous conflicts, the ministry’s figures were accepted as credible without much questioning and also correlate with their own tallies.

The al-Ahli Hospital massacre

Doubts surrounding the massacre at al-Ahli al Arabi Hospital caused by an explosion on October 17, have contributed to the distrust of numbers provided by Hamas. Authorities in Gaza initially announced a death toll of 200-300 people, but the Gaza Health Ministry later raised the number to 471. Several investigations suggest that the actual number of victims was probably lower since the bomb fell in the hospital parking lot, which may have limited the damage. “We need to differentiate between statements made by senior officials in the heat of the moment and the actual death toll directly reported to the ministry by hospitals,” said Shakir.

When it comes to the exact count of civilian casualties, the Gaza Health Ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. “The ministry only collects data like identity number, name and age. As far as that goes, we consider its information reliable,” said Shakir. To determine the exact number of non-combatant casualties, “an investigation is needed, but it’s very difficult when war correspondents and human rights organizations are not allowed to enter Gaza to do their own on-site work.” Shakir says the number of dead children (2,913) indicated in the ministry’s report suggests a significant loss of civilian lives.

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