UN Begins Citing a Lower Death Toll For Women and Children in Gaza

The United Nations has begun citing a much lower death toll for women and children in Gaza, acknowledging that it has incomplete information about many of the people killed during Israel’s military offensive in the territory.

As recently as May 6, the U.N’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in its regularly updated online report that at least 9,500 women and 14,500 children were among the dead, out of an overall death toll of 34,735.

Two days later, the U.N. said in another online update that 4,959 women, 7,797 children and 10,006 men had been killed. While the total number of deaths remained roughly the same, a U.N. official said that it was awaiting more identifying information from officials in Gaza for about 10,000 of the dead, so they were not included in the new breakdown of women, men and children.

The change in the U.N.’s numbers — and the confusion over the discrepancy — has added fuel to a debate over the credibility of the Gazan authorities’ tallies of fatalities in the war. The deaths of women and children are seen as an important, if incomplete, indication of how many civilians have been killed, a question that lies at the heart of the criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war.

The change came because the United Nations switched to citing a more conservative source for its numbers — the Gazan Ministry of Health — rather than using Gaza’s Government Media Office, as it had in recent weeks. Both offices are part of the Hamas-run government in the enclave.

Many international officials and experts familiar with the way the health ministry verifies deaths in Gaza — drawing from morgues and hospitals across the territory — say its numbers are generally reliable.

The health ministry says its count of women and children killed is based on the total number of people whose identities it can fully verify — 24,840 individuals in all as of May 13.

More than 10,000 other people have also been killed, the health ministry says, but it does not have their full names, official ID numbers or other information it needs to be certain of their identities. That is why they are not included in the breakdown of women and children killed that is now being cited by the U.N., officials said.

“There’s about another 10,000-plus bodies who still have to be fully identified,” Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N., said on Monday. He added: “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.”

Mr. Haq said the United Nations was relying on the data coming out of the health ministry, as it has “in all previous conflicts.”

He added that the U.N. had started using figures from Gaza’s media office because there had been a pause in reporting from the health ministry. But now that the ministry’s casualty reporting was back on line, he said, the U.N. had returned to using its information.

Israeli officials say they are suspicious of the Gazan health ministry’s count. A spokesman for the Israeli military, Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani, noted that the health ministry does not distinguish in its numbers between combatants and civilians. He also said that Israel sees every civilian death as a tragedy.

After the United Nations issued a lower documented death toll for women and children, Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, called the new numbers “the miraculous resurrection of the dead in Gaza,” saying the United Nations had relied on “fake data from a terrorist organization.”

Elliott Abrams, a veteran American conservative, said in an article for the Council on Foreign Relations on Sunday that it has become “increasingly clear that these numbers represent Hamas propaganda.”

But figures cited by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel are not drastically different from those used by the United Nations. He said last week that Israeli forces had killed about 14,000 Hamas combatants and 16,000 civilians, for a total of around 30,000, without elaborating on the source for those numbers.

In a sign that the U.S. government views casualty figures supplied by the Gaza health authorities as reliable, President Biden cited their overall death toll in his State of the Union speech in March. The United Nations publishes the health ministry’s figures on a website and U.N. leaders refer to them frequently.

A few weeks ago, the health ministry released its latest list detailing the identities of the dead that it had fully documented. It has also released a series of detailed reports explaining how it compiles casualty figures.

Early in the war, when its figures were called into question, the health ministry released a list of names, ages and identification numbers of the dead. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine analyzed that data, in a report published in November in The Lancet, and found “no obvious reason to doubt the validity of the data.”

Airwars, a British organization that assesses claims of civilian harm in conflicts, has matched the names of those reported killed with lists of names released by the health ministry. The vast majority of names match up, said Emily Tripp, the group’s director. Airwars also analyzed a ministry of health list of names issued earlier in the conflict and found that the proportion of children, women and men reported by the ministry roughly aligned with its own data collection, she said.

Neta Crawford, a professor of political science at Oxford University and the founder of the Costs of War project, which examines the consequences of the post 9/11 wars, argued that the figures appeared to have been produced to professional standards.

International experts who have worked with health officials in Gaza during this and other wars say that hospitals and morgues in the enclave gather and report the names, ID numbers and other details of people who have been killed in the territory.

The detailed count excludes thousands of people reported at hospitals as missing but believed to be buried under rubble; they are counted as dead only when their bodies are found.

The Gaza media office has consistently provided an overall death toll similar to the one given by the ministry of health, but different and often higher figures for the number of women and children killed.

Ismail Al Thawabateh, the office’s director general, said in an interview that the health ministry listed and categorized an individual as dead only when all of their details had been documented and verified by a next of kin. He did not explain why his office used a breakdown of women and children based on the overall death toll.

“The remaining 10,000 are bodies that have entered the hospitals but until this moment, the next of kin have not been reached yet to verify how they were martyred and completing their information,” he said.

When reached, Ashraf al-Qudra, the Gaza health ministry’s spokesman referred questions to the Ministry of Health’s latest report from May 13.

Patrick Kingsley and Ameera Harouda contributed reporting.

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