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How are the dead counted in Gaza?

  • By the BBC Verify team
  • BBC News

In any war zone, counting the dead is a challenge. Gaza is no different.

As the fighting intensifies, the chaotic situation – with bombardments by Israeli forces, on-the-ground fighting, communications outages, fuel shortages and crumbling infrastructure – makes obtaining accurate information extremely demanding. on the number of people who died.

And Palestinian officials said there were now “significant difficulties” in obtaining up-to-date information due to the disruption of communications in the Gaza Strip.

The Ministry of Health is the official source for the number of deaths in Gaza – which it updates regularly. On Monday evening, it said 11,240 people had been killed, including 4,630 children, since Hamas’ attacks on Israel on October 7, which sparked the current war.

These figures have been publicly doubted by Israel, although it recently had to revise its own death figures by around 200, from 1,400 to around 1,200.

US President Joe Biden said he had “no confidence” in the Gaza statistics. But international organizations, such as the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO), have said they have no reason not to believe them.

The BBC has studied in detail how casualty figures in Gaza are counted.

The figures

Gaza’s health ministry reports a steady death toll on social media, with a further breakdown of the number of women, children and elderly people killed. The figures do not give the cause of death, but describe the dead as victims of “Israeli aggression.”

The ministry also gives figures on the injured and missing. Some bodies remain trapped under piles of rubble, says the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Health Ministry officials say death figures are recorded by medical professionals before being reported to them and that these figures only include people who died in hospital. The figures do not distinguish between military and civilian deaths. And because they do not take into account people who died at the scene of the explosions and whose bodies were not found or buried immediately, they could be underestimated, Gaza officials say.

That point was amplified by the Biden administration last week, when a senior U.S. official said the death toll was likely higher than reported figures.

“Frankly, we think they are very high,” Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “and it may be that they are even higher than what is quoted.

This contrasts sharply with the view of Mr Biden himself, who on October 25 said he had “no idea that the Palestinians are telling the truth about the number of people killed”.

However, he provided no evidence for his skepticism.

A day after Mr. Biden rejected these figures, Gaza’s health ministry provided more information, releasing a long list of names of everyone who had been killed between October 7 and 26. The list included more than 6,000 full names with their age, gender and identification number.

How was it compiled? The BBC spoke to people involved in collecting and organizing the data as well as an academic who checked the list of names for duplicates.

We also spoke to an independent research group, Airwars, which is in the process of comparing the deaths it investigated with the names on the Ministry of Health’s list, and to the UN, which assessed the figures deaths in Gaza during previous periods of conflict.

Image source, Getty Images

Medical professionals like Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah, a London-based Médecins Sans Frontières plastic surgeon who treats patients in Gaza City hospitals, play a key role in recording these numbers.

He says the hospital morgue registers deaths after confirming the identity of the deceased with their relatives.

The number of deaths recorded so far, he estimates, is much lower than that actually occurred. “Most deaths occur at home,” he says. “Those we couldn’t identify, we didn’t record.”

However, once a body is found, it “must be taken to hospital to be registered”, explains a spokesperson for the Palestine Red Crescent.

To review the Department of Health’s list, the BBC cross-referenced the names on it with the names of the deceased who appeared in our reporting. One of these deaths, reported by the BBC, was that of Dr. Midhat Mahmoud Saidam, killed in a strike on October 14. The BBC spoke to his former colleagues.

Analysis of satellite images by the BBC showed damage in the area where he lived around the time of his death. An image posted on social media shows a body bag with his name and details written on it.

Similar work, but on a larger scale, is being carried out by Airwars. As part of its work investigating civilian deaths, the agency compared the names of the dead on the Health Ministry’s list with the areas that were bombed. So far, Airwars has found 72 names on the ministry’s list in five of the areas it investigated, including that of Dr Saidham.

The investigation also revealed that 23 members of his family had also died and they were all included in the Ministry of Health’s list.

The BBC also spoke to the UN and Human Rights Watch, who both said they had no reason not to believe the figures released by Gaza’s health ministry.

The UN relies on the Ministry of Health to know the number of victims in the region.

“We continue to include their data in our reporting, and it is clearly sourced,” he said in a statement. “It is almost impossible at present to ensure daily verification by the UN.”

Others who have looked at the Department of Health figures include economics professor Michael Spagat, of Royal Holloway, University of London, who chairs the charity Every Casualty Counts which studies death tolls in wars .

Image source, Getty Images

He says he and a colleague found only one duplicate entry in the Health Ministry’s dataset: that of a 14-year-old boy.

However, one discrepancy remains hotly contested: that of the death toll after an explosion at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City on October 17. The Health Ministry said 500 people were killed, and this figure was later revised downward to 471. A US intelligence assessment was lower, “probably at the lower end of the spectrum of 100 to 300” . The Israeli military cited Al-Ahli’s figures as the basis for claiming that Gaza’s health ministry “continually inflates the number of civilian casualties.”

The BBC has made several attempts to contact the Ministry of Health in Gaza, but has so far been unable to get a response.

Learn more about the Israel-Gaza war

Professor Spagat also looked at previous conflicts and found that Gaza’s health ministry figures have held up under past scrutiny.

In an analysis of the Health Ministry’s death figures related to the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, during which Gaza was bombed, and a separate register of death figures from the same year, compiled by the Israeli organization of human rights defender B’Tselem, Professor Spagat found overall consistency in the reported figures.

The Health Ministry said 2,310 Gazans were killed in 2014, while B’Tselem counted 2,185 deaths. The UN said 2,251 Palestinians were killed, including 1,462 civilians, and Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the 2014 war killed 2,125 Palestinians.

Such discrepancies are “fairly normal”, says Professor Spagat, to the extent that some people may have died in hospital for reasons which later turned out to be unrelated to the violence in the conflict.

Ola Awad-Shakhshir, president of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, receives regular updates on deaths from Gaza.

Awad-Shakhshir says the Israeli Interior Ministry effectively monitors the identification numbers of newborns born in Gaza and the West Bank – the same identification numbers that appear on the Health Ministry’s register of registered deaths led by Hamas.

When the BBC contacted an Israeli military spokesperson to ask why it had questioned the Gaza death figures, she said the Health Ministry was an arm of Hamas and that any information provided by this should be “considered with caution”. But he provided no evidence of inconsistencies in data released by the Health Ministry.

We also asked the Israeli Prime Minister’s office how the number of Israelis killed on October 7 by Hamas was recorded. He did not answer that question, but in recent days Israel has revised down the number of people killed in the attack to around 1,200, from 1,400 previously.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said the revised figure was because many bodies were not immediately identified after the attack, and “we now believe they belong to terrorists…and not to Israeli victims.”

The Israeli government has not published a detailed list of civilian casualties, although some Israeli media outlets have compiled such lists with the names, ages and locations of the deaths.

Israeli police say more than 850 civilian bodies have been identified. Work continues to attempt to identify the remains using specialist forensic techniques.

There is a public list of Israeli soldiers killed so far, which includes 48 killed in fighting inside Gaza.

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