The Challenges of Counting the Dead in Gaza

In the midst of the ongoing conflict in Gaza, one of the most challenging tasks is accurately counting the number of people who have died. The chaotic situation, characterized by Israeli bombardment, on-the-ground fighting, communication blackouts, fuel shortages, and crumbling infrastructure, poses significant difficulties in obtaining updated and accurate information about the death toll. Palestinian officials have acknowledged these challenges, attributing them to the interruption of communications in the Gaza Strip. The official source for death numbers in Gaza is the health ministry, which regularly updates the figures. As of Monday evening, the ministry reported a total of 11,240 deaths, including 4,630 children, since the beginning of the conflict on 7 October. However, these numbers have been publicly doubted by Israel, which recently revised its own death toll down from 1,400 to around 1,200. US President Joe Biden has expressed his lack of confidence in the Gaza statistics. Despite this skepticism, international organizations such as the UN’s World Health Organization have stated that they have no reason to disbelieve the figures. The BBC has delved into the process of counting casualties in Gaza to shed light on this complex and sensitive issue.

The health ministry in Gaza regularly updates a death total on social media, providing a breakdown of the number of women, children, and the elderly who have been killed. However, the figures do not specify the cause of death and simply describe the deceased as victims of “Israeli aggression.” The ministry also provides information on the number of injured and missing individuals. The Palestinian Red Crescent has reported that some bodies remain trapped under rubble, which may contribute to an undercount of the death toll. Health ministry officials clarify that the figures only include individuals recorded as dead in hospitals and do not distinguish between military and civilian deaths. Additionally, those who died at the scene of blasts and were immediately buried or whose bodies have not been found are not accounted for in the official figures. Therefore, the actual death toll could be higher than reported.

The discrepancy in the reported numbers has sparked debate and skepticism. While President Biden has expressed doubt about the accuracy of the figures, he has not provided any evidence to support his skepticism. However, the health ministry in Gaza responded to these doubts by publishing an extensive list of names, ages, sexes, and ID numbers of those killed between 7 and 26 October, providing more transparency and detail.

Various organizations and individuals have independently examined the data provided by the health ministry. The BBC cross-referenced the ministry’s list with their own reporting to validate the accuracy of the reported deaths. Airwars, an independent research group investigating civilian casualties, has also matched the names on the health ministry’s list with areas that have been bombed, verifying the authenticity of some of the reported deaths. The UN and Human Rights Watch have stated that they have no reason to dispute the figures released by the health ministry and continue to include the data in their reporting.

Economics professor Michael Spagat, who chairs the charity Every Casualty Counts, has analyzed previous conflicts in Gaza and found overall consistency in the reported death figures between health ministry records and other sources. However, discrepancies between different sources are not uncommon, as some deaths may be unrelated to violence in the conflict.

The process of counting the dead in Gaza is a complex and challenging task. Healthcare workers, such as Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah, record deaths at hospitals after confirming the identity of the deceased with their relatives. However, many deaths occur at home and are not officially recorded. The identification of bodies is also crucial in the recording process. Satellite imagery analysis and investigations by various organizations have helped validate some of the reported deaths in Gaza.

The Israeli government has cast doubt on the death figures released by the health ministry, claiming that it is a branch of Hamas and that the information should be viewed with caution. However, they have not provided any evidence to support their doubts. Israel has revised its own death toll down, stating that many bodies were not immediately identified and are believed to belong to terrorists rather than Israeli casualties. While the Israeli government has not published a detailed list of civilian casualties, Israeli media outlets have compiled lists with names, ages, and locations of deaths.

Counting the dead in a warzone is a difficult task, and it is crucial to approach the reported figures with caution and skepticism. Despite the challenges, various organizations and individuals have independently examined the data provided by the health ministry in Gaza, and overall consistency has been found. Each death represents a human life lost, and it is essential to ensure accurate reporting and accountability for all casualties in this ongoing conflict.