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Why Gaza Fatality Data Has Become Completely Unreliable

An UNRWA aid truck at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Heated debates over the Palestinian death toll in the Hamas-Israel war tend to focus on the fact that widely cited fatality numbers make no distinction between combatants and noncombatants. While this is true, it misses a more fundamental problem: the numbers themselves have lost any claim to validity.

In the first month of the war, the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health (MOH) in Gaza relied on its existing collection system, made up primarily of hospitals and morgues, to certify each death.

Starting in early November, however, hospitals in northern Gaza began to shut down or evacuate during the Israeli ground invasion, spurring the MOH to introduce a new, undefined methodology for counting fatalities: media reports. This methodology, which the MOH has rarely acknowledged publicly, accounts for the majority of fatalities reported over the past four months, surpassing the traditional collection system.

A comparison of the two methodologies, using MOH reports and claims published by the Hamas-controlled Government Media Office (GMO), yields wildly different and irreconcilable results, indicating that the media reports methodology is dramatically understating fatalities among adult males, the demographic most likely to be combatants. This undercuts the persistent claim that 72 percent of those killed in Gaza are women and children — a problematic claim that has worsened since it was first noted by a Washington Institute report in January.

The result is that MOH statistics do not appear to offer a reliable guide to the actual Palestinian death toll even by the “foggy” standards of normal wartime reporting. Journalists, analysts, and government officials need to be aware that the actual overall death toll may be significantly higher (or, less likely, lower) than what the MOH has reported; the demographic composition of these fatalities is certainly far different than what the MOH claims.

Building a Database

To assess this problem, the author has assembled a comprehensive collection of publicly available Gaza fatality data that includes:

Daily updates covering the period October 7 through March 21, obtained from four sources: the Hamas-run MOH in Gaza, the Hamas-run GMO, the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health in Ramallah, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (which simply relays Gaza MOH/GMO claims, sometimes inaccurately).
Compiled data from 13 Health Sector Emergency Reports published by the Gaza MOH between December 11 and March 18 (these documents can be accessed via the MOH Telegram channel or the Internet Archive).
Two comprehensive MOH data releases on October 26 and January 7 (the latter covering up to November 2 for all of Gaza and up to January 5 for the south).

The following analysis is based primarily on the Health Sector Emergency Reports and occasional GMO updates.

If interested, you can download a condensed version of the author’s database. (The full database with sources, methodology, and other information will be published on a future date.)

Limitations of Media Reports

The regular methodology used by the MOH (hereafter the “central collection system”) records deaths at hospitals and morgues, along with deaths reported by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society ambulance service and other unspecified sources (for a more detailed explanation of these practices, see the author’s January study). This methodology is well-understood and has been relatively accurate in the past.

Unlike in previous conflicts, however, neither OCHA nor local and international NGOs are currently conducting real-time fatality verification in Gaza or attempting to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Moreover, only a third of Gaza’s hospitals are even partially functional, and many parts of the Strip have serious access problems, curtailing the use of this methodology to count deaths outside of Rafah and Khan Yunis governorates.

On November 10, the MOH announced that it could no longer report deaths from two northern governorates; a month later, officials acknowledged that they were relying on what they called “reliable media sources” to report deaths in those areas. In reality, they had begun using this methodology as early as November 3, according to the MOH dataset released on January 7.

To be sure, it is not uncommon to use news reports when attempting to count deaths in chaotic battlespaces with access issues and damaged institutions. Yet this practice is notoriously difficult and typically looks backward rather than attempting a real-time count. The reliability of any such effort is greatly dependent on its methodological details, but the MOH has refused to elaborate on how it collects this data, which is a major problem given that media reports have become the dominant input in the Gaza death toll, accounting for more than 14,000 reported fatalities.

Comparing the Methodologies

Despite known problems with the MOH central collection system (outlined in more detail in the January study), it is the more reliable methodology because it involves identity verification and counting of actual bodies.

Media reports, by contrast, are much more difficult to verify, regularly lack details necessary to determine the identities or disposition of those killed, and may double-count or miss many fatalities. The divergence between the two methodologies is perhaps best shown by how differently they have reported demographic details about Gaza deaths.

For instance, the MOH Health Sector Emergency Reports provide separate data on men, women, and children when their deaths are recorded through the central collection system, but only a single aggregated figure for deaths gleaned from media reports. When these reports coincide with the GMO’s periodic reports (which provide demographic breakdowns), one can compare how they treat fatalities among different demographic groups.

This comparison reveals sharp differences — most notably, a sixfold decrease in adult male fatalities recorded from media reports and a fourfold increase in child fatalities. (For reference, children make up roughly 50% of Gaza’s population, and men and women make up a quarter each.)

Some of these differences may be explained by the fact that media reports are unlikely to capture combatant deaths accurately due to access issues and fear of retribution for exposing Hamas losses. In most cases, however, the numbers are too far apart to be reconcilable, or too divorced from the realities on the ground to be credible.

For example, according to the media reports methodology, only 1,192 men had been killed in northern and central Gaza as of March 18, despite four and a half months of heavy ground fighting (see the author’s condensed database). Five days later, that number inexplicably decreased to 1,170 — a feat that would have required 22 men to somehow come back to life by March 23 in order to reconcile the central collection system data with the overall claim. In contrast, Israeli authorities estimate that 13,000 militants have been killed — a figure that may incorporate many combatant deaths not recorded by either MOH methodology.

Without clarification from the MOH, such findings suggest significant omission or manipulation aimed at understating the number of men killed and overstating the number of children killed. One possibility is that fatalities among militants — most of whom are men — are more likely to go unreported because they occur in tunnels or on battlefields, where most reporters are either unable to access bodies or unwilling to risk Hamas retribution or the dangers of combat zones. Another possibility is active manipulation — that is, using the media reports methodology as a smokescreen for altering the data in support of the claim that 72% of those killed are women and children.

Meanwhile, data from the central collection system indicates a sharp decrease in overall deaths since November and a sustained increase in the proportion of men killed.

In addition to the MOH’s growing reliance on the media reports methodology, these trends may reflect various factors on the ground, such as Israel’s shift from a primarily air-based campaign to ground fighting, the mass evacuation of civilians from the north to Rafah governorate, and the decreasing intensity of fighting in areas where the central collection system is still functioning. Such factors would be expected to reduce overall civilian casualties and therefore increase the proportion of adult men killed, since that is the demographic most likely to serve as combatants.

Caveats and Recommendations

This analysis is solely intended to compare various Hamas fatality claims against each other and raise questions about the resultant discrepancies. It makes no claims about the true death toll in Gaza or the civilian-combatant ratio, nor is it meant to distract from the very real and widespread loss of life in Gaza and the severe humanitarian crisis that its population continues to suffer.

Regarding the over-representation of men in the fatality statistics, this point is not intended to imply that all Gazan men are militants. Rather, adult men are the most likely to be militants across any group (though Hamas is known to use children in combat and support roles). Their overrepresentation has also been used to help estimate militant deaths in the past.

Caveats aside, the above findings should prompt analysts, media outlets, and government officials to bear the following points in mind when assessing Gaza fatality statistics:

The discrepancies between the methodologies for counting fatalities warrant much more intense scrutiny and should be paired with appropriate caveats if cited. Whether through passive omission, active manipulation, or both, the Gaza Health Ministry’s media reports methodology significantly understates the number of men killed and may overstate the number of children killed.
The repeated claim that 72% of the dead are women and children is very likely incorrect. Data from the central collection system indicates that 58% of those killed since the start of the war are women and children; this figure drops to 48% for those killed since November 3. For the 72% claim to be accurate, women and children would have to make up about 90% of deaths recorded from media reports. This proportion is implausible — men comprise a quarter of the population, and these fatalities have largely occurred in areas with fewer civilians and more combatants, most of whom are adult men.
Data from both methodologies suggests that the war has decreased in intensity. Fatalities have declined from an average of 348 per day in the first weeks of the war to around 85 per day in March.
The existing data is too limited to allow for definitive conclusions about the true death toll or the civilian-combatant ratio. A high proportion of reported deaths come from an unknown methodology that may be misrepresenting the data, while enormous uncertainty persists regarding how many combatant fatalities go uncounted in tunnels and other battlespaces. The exact proportions of men, women, and children killed are even more unclear. The available data does not allow for reliable estimates about the ratio of civilians to combatants killed either, whether independently or by comparison with Israeli estimates.

Gabriel Epstein is a Research Assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where this article was originally published.

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Israel’s ambassador to Canada says his country faces critical decisions after a night of Iranian missile attacks—and urges Canada to list the IRGC as a terrorist group

Israel is at a crucial juncture after Iran fired more than 350 ballistic and cruise missiles at the Jewish state overnight on April 13, according to Israel’s ambassador to Canada. “We are facing one of the most critical moments in the history of the State of Israel when a country like Iran starts an attack […]

The post Israel’s ambassador to Canada says his country faces critical decisions after a night of Iranian missile attacks—and urges Canada to list the IRGC as a terrorist group appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Nicaragua’s Charade at the ICJ

General view of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands December 11, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

JNS.orgThe solemnly named International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague has become an arena for the world’s despots and authoritarians to strut and grandstand, projecting their own abuses—torture, censorship, genocide—onto the world’s democracies.

The anti-democratic crusade waged in the name of human rights has impacted Israel more than any other state. The Jewish state is subjected to insulting and, frankly, frivolous lawsuits every time it tries to discharge its basic duty of protecting its citizens—whether that was the security fence constructed along the West Bank border more than a decade ago or the war against Hamas in Gaza right now.

Since the onset of the latest war in the Gaza Strip, triggered by the monstrous Hamas pogrom of Oct. 7, Israel has been the focus of a baseless charge of genocide brought about by South Africa, which largely failed in its bid to make the accusation stick. Many observers pointed out that South Africa’s worsening domestic record—marked by corruption, horrific xenophobia towards migrants from other countries in southern Africa and an inability to deliver basic services like electricity and clean water to those who need them most—hardly qualifies its African National Congress (ANC)-led government to sit in judgment over Israel. Yet Pretoria has continued undeterred, at the same time that it welcomes Hamas leaders for state visits and treats its Jewish community—and anyone else who dares utter understanding for Israel—with unvarnished antisemitism.

Now the baton has passed to Nicaragua, which last week sent its lawyers to the ICJ to charge Germany with aiding and abetting Israel’s supposed “genocide.” The bitter irony is that it is Nicaragua’s far-left leadership, aligned with the dictatorships in Venezuela and Cuba, that should be in the dock.

Daniel Ortega has been in power in Nicaragua since 2007, and he’s not going anywhere—at least, not voluntarily. Some readers will remember Ortega’s name from the Sandinista revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and the Iran-Contra scandal that followed during the subsequent decade. But you don’t have to dig deep into that history to get a sense of the kind of regime that he runs. As Freedom House—an NGO that monitors the state of liberty around the world—explains it, the latest period of Ortega’s rule has been “a period of democratic deterioration marked by the consolidation of all branches of government under his party’s control, the limitation of fundamental freedoms and unchecked corruption in government.”

In the last year alone, the Nicaraguan regime has expelled more than 200 opposition leaders into exile in the United States. It has passed new legislation to strip those deemed “traitors to the homeland” of their citizenship. It has turned the police into an arm of the executive, trampling over the separation of powers that democracies hold so dear. In many ways, this new wave of repression is an outgrowth of the regime’s brutal clampdown on anti-government protests in 2018. Abroad, meanwhile, its authoritarian domestic policy is matched by unflinching support for Russia in its invasion of Ukraine and a close bond with the Iranian regime, North Korea and other rogue states.

This, in short, is the character of the regime that has brought charges of “genocide” against Israel by targeting Germany’s supply of arms to the Jewish state—as if a serial sex offender was to opportunistically cry out, “rape!”

Why is Nicaragua embarking on this path at the ICJ? Some insight was provided by a German journalist who specializes in Latin American affairs, Toni Keppeler, during an interview last week with Swiss radio. Noting that Nicaragua is quite isolated among the world’s states, Keppeler suggested that the ICJ lawsuit was seen by Ortega as a means of boosting his international image. And Germany, he added, was a much safer bet than the United States, which supplies far more weapons to Israel, because America can punish Nicaragua in ways that Germany couldn’t or wouldn’t. He also noted that Ortega wants to be embraced by left-wing groups around the world. And so the Nicaraguan caudillo figures, not unreasonably, that bandwagoning on the Palestinian cause they are obsessed with is the way he will achieve that.

But there is another, more sinister reason behind Nicaragua’s action. Ultimately, these cases against Israel at the ICJ are aimed at shifting public perceptions of Israel and its history, and in particular, the influence of the Holocaust upon support for Israel in the democratic world. One of the reasons why Germany supports Israel is simply because it was the country that initiated the mass slaughter of Jews during World War II. Since 1945, democratic Germany has been guided by entirely different principles, elevating its backing for Israel into a staatsrason—“reason of state.” Indeed, as I noted recently, one of the several questions about Jews and Israel on the newly reformulated naturalization test for prospective immigrants to Germany asks, “What is the basis of Germany’s special responsibility to Israel?” with the correct answer being “The crimes of national socialism.”

That is how it should be, but for the international left, such a stance is intolerable. In their jaundiced eyes, Germany has atoned for the Holocaust by backing the nakba—the Arabic word for “catastrophe” used by many Palestinians to describe the creation of modern-day Israel in 1948. Germany’s position irritatingly reminds the world that Jews were once victims of nightmarish genocide themselves—hardly the sort of fact you’d want to highlight if your purpose is to turn them into victims once again. And so, Nicaragua’s lawyers (including, disgracefully, a German citizen named Daniel Muller) have trooped into the ICJ to argue that supporting the Jewish state is the wrong way to express solidarity with Jews.

The goal here, make no mistake, is to separate the Holocaust from Israel and to argue that the one entity in the world capable of preventing another Holocaust is actually sowing its seeds! It’s topsy-turvy logic, but if it works effectively as propaganda, generating meme after meme on social media, why worry about that?

Hence we arrive at a situation where the 15 ICJ judges debate a phantom genocide while turning a blind eye to genuine examples of this phenomenon, along with other related crimes. “The government of Nicaragua is perpetrating widespread violations and abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity,” the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect Project noted in a briefing back in February, but you won’t hear a peep about that in the ICJ’s corridors. Ditto for Turkey’s racist treatment of its Kurdish minority, and indeed, for the myriad other examples of government-sponsored cruelty on every continent.

This is yet another demonstration of antisemitism, insofar as antisemitism applies to standards for Jews that no other nation has to contend with. That is the ugly reality behind these fanciful appeals to “international law” that plague Israel. Germany is now receiving a glimpse of what that feels like but only because of its relationship with Israel—otherwise, this case would never have been brought to court.

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Misplaced Moral Outrage on Civilian Casualties

Former US President Barack Obama. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.“Israel has taken more steps to avoid harming civilians than any other military in history. … Steps that Israel has taken to prevent casualties [are] historic in comparison to all these other wars.” — John Spencer, chairman of urban warfare studies, West Point, Feb. 17, 2024

“[Immediately after taking office] Obama authorized two Central Intelligence Agency drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, which, combined, killed an estimated one militant and 10 civilians, including between four and five children.” — Obama’s Embrace of Drone Strikes Will Be a Lasting Legacy,” New York Times, Jan. 12, 2016

In recent years, we have investigated civilian harm from U.S. air strikes … in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, and found that thousands of civilians have been killed or seriously injured … with little accountability.” — Amnesty International at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Council hearing, Feb. 9, 2022

The recent accidental deaths of seven foreign aid workers with World Central Kitchen in the Gaza Strip have sparked an eruption of anti-Israel vitriol that highlights the vicious Judeophobic prejudice that is sweeping much of the globe today. This is something that defies all and any tenets of morality and reason. Indeed, by any conceivable criterion of human decency, there is no conflict in recent history in which the gulf between good and evil, wanton barbarism and humanitarian restraint, has been so clearly delineated as that between the protagonists in the ongoing war in Gaza.

Painstaking Israeli restraint

The tragedy of collateral damage has been a lamentable aspect of warfare ever since nation-states began to displace dynastic monarchies as the dominant structural element in the international system and perhaps even before that.

Rarely if ever has one of the belligerent parties—let alone the victim of a brutal unprovoked attack on its civilians—demonstrated such painstaking care to avoid harm befalling enemy civilians as Israel. This is reflected in the unequivocal declaration of the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Col. Richard Kemp: “I have fought in combat zones around the world including Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Macedonia and Iraq. I was also present throughout the conflict in Gaza in 2014. Based on my experience and on my observations, the Israel Defense Forces … does more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

In Gaza, the vulnerability of non-combatants is greatly exacerbated by the malicious actions of their leaders, who cynically exploit them by deliberately placing them in harm’s way and coercively preventing them from seeking safe havens. Thus, as a Wall Street Journal piece underscores, “Israel seeks to minimize civilian casualties, while Hamas seeks to maximize civilian casualties and use them as a propaganda tool.”

Israel setting ‘gold standard’ for avoiding civilian casualties

The chairman of urban warfare studies at West Point, John Spencer, described Israel’s achievements in avoiding collateral damage as “unprecedented,” particularly given the complex combat conditions in Gaza above and below ground. According to Spencer, Israel is setting the “gold standard” for avoiding civilian casualties.

Likewise, Kemp praised the IDF for its record of avoiding civilian casualties during its operations in Gaza and pointed out that the average combatant-to-civilian death ratio in Gaza is about 1:1.5, while according to the United Nations, the average combatant-to-civilian death ratio in urban warfare in general is 1:9—six times higher.

The issue of civilian casualties in Gaza is hugely complicated by Hamas’s heinous practice of exploiting medical facilities as a cover for its terror activities. This includes the copiously documented abuse of ambulances for the transportation of terror-related personnel and materiel.

Israeli moderation is underscored by comparison to non-combatant fatalities in other military encounters involving democracies at war. In World War II, nearly 600,000 European civilians were killed by Allied aerial bombardment of German cities that were reduced to rubble and ashes. Moreover, cities in other countries in Nazi-occupied Europe were bombarded—including their non-combatant civilian residents. One of the most grisly and tragic of these events occurred in Copenhagen in March 1945, when the RAF was sent to bomb the Gestapo headquarters in the city. It inadvertently hit a nearby school, killing 123 Danish civilians, including 87 schoolchildren.

Then there were the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—neither of which was ever designated as a military target—of whom between 100,000 to 200,000 were incinerated and irradiated by the U.S. atomic bombings in early August 1945.

“There is always a cost to defeat an evil.”

Half a century later, after hundreds of thousands were killed by American bombing in the Vietnam War, NATO launched a war against Serbia. The NATO campaign consisted of high altitude—and hence far from accurate—bombing raids that regularly hit civilian targets. These targets included residential neighborhoods, old-age homes, hospitals, open-air markets, columns of fleeing refugees, civilian buses, trains on bridges and even a foreign embassy.

When then-NATO spokesman Jamie Shea was pressed on the issue of the significant numbers of civilian casualties, he responded, “There is always a cost to defeat an evil. It never comes free, unfortunately. But the cost of failure to defeat a great evil is far higher.” This is exactly how Israelis feel about the war against Hamas.

These were not the only post-World War II instances of pervasive human suffering caused by large-scale U.S.-led military operations.

More babies died in Iraq than in Hiroshima

After Saddam Hussein’s 1991 takeover of Kuwait, the United States and its allies imposed sanctions on Iraq and dispatched forces to repel the invasion. Even after Hussein was evicted from Kuwait, sanctions and military operations continued. These measures resulted in tremendous suffering for the civilian population. The scale of it can be gauged by a 1996 60 Minutes interview with the late Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and secretary of state under Bill Clinton. Albright was quizzed by the interviewer Leslie Stahl about the ravages the U.S.-led measures wrought on the Iraqi population.

Stahl asked,We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright responded, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”

Of course, it should be underscored that—unlike Israel’s post-Oct. 7 response to a massacre of its citizens on its sovereign territory—at this (pre-9/11) time, neither the U.S. homeland nor any U.S. resident had been harmed by the Iraqi regime.

‘A tremendous human toll … ’

In 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks in which almost 3,000 people died, a U.S.-led military coalition (in which the U.K. played a prominent role) invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban government and uproot Al-Qaeda. The Oct. 7 massacre was—in proportion to Israel’s population—almost 35 times the toll of the 9/11 atrocity; the equivalent of almost 50,000 U.S. fatalities.

Although reliable figures regarding the toll the war inflicted on the civilian population of Afghanistan and neighboring countries are not easy to obtain, an estimate published by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs states, “The U.S. post-9/11 wars … have taken a tremendous human toll on those countries.” It presents a 2021 assessment that almost 47,000 Afghani civilians were killed, but adds a proviso that “several times … more have been killed as a reverberating effect of the wars,” including through “water loss, sewage and other infrastructural issues, and war-related disease.”

Thousands of civilians hit ‘with little accountability’

U.S. strikes in which indisputably civilian targets were hit are a matter of record. During the 20-year war in Afghanistan, several weddings, parties and processions were struck by drones—inflicting hundreds of fatalities, including women and children. Such strikes took place not only in Afghanistan but in other countries, including neighboring Pakistan and more distant Iraq, Yemen, Libya and even Somalia.

Summing up the consequences of the U.S. strikes, Amnesty International USA stated: “In recent years, we have investigated civilian harm from U.S. air strikes and U.S.-led Coalition airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, and found that thousands of civilians have been killed or seriously injured by U.S. air strikes (both using drones and manned aircraft) with little accountability.”

Finally. the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition—launched on the dubious or at least unsubstantiated allegations that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction—wrought untold misery on millions of Iraqi civilians and a death toll upwards of 300,000 non-combatants.

Closing caveat

The current vogue of berating Israel is both unfounded and unfair. Lending this abuse support or sympathy will only serve to fan the flames of today’s smoldering embers of hatred that will eventually engulf those who propagate it.

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