How Reliable Are Gaza Health Ministry’s Death Numbers

06 November 2023

The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Monday that more than 10,000 Palestinians have died in the current conflict with Israel. The agency, however, does not differentiate the number of deaths as civilians or combatants.

The conflict began after October 7, when Hamas militants attacked Israel. They killed at least 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians. Hamas also kidnapped an estimated 240 people.

Israel has answered with airstrikes that it says target militants in the territory. Last week, Israeli military forces entered northern Gaza intending to drive Hamas militants from power. Experts expect the number of deaths will rise as street fighting starts in the heavily populated area.

Palestinians go through the rubble of a building in Khan Yunis on November 6, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by Mahmud HAMS / AFP)
Palestinians go through the rubble of a building in Khan Yunis on November 6, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

Since foreign reporters and independent organizations are barred from Gaza, the Hamas-run Health Ministry is the only official source for casualties in the territory. The United Nations and other international organizations said the ministry has made a good-faith effort to count the number of deaths under difficult conditions.

Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization said that the ministry's numbers might not be "perfectly accurate." But he added, "They largely reflect the level of death and injury."

The recent explosion at al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza showed how difficult it was to estimate the cause and the number of deaths in the conflict.

Hamas militants blamed an Israeli airstrike for the explosion. Gaza's Health Ministry first reported 200 to 300 deaths in the explosion. Half an hour later, the agency revised the number to 500. The following day, it changed the number to 471.

Israel, the United States and French officials, however, said the explosion was caused by a misfired rocket. And American intelligence estimates the number of deaths at the hospital parking area to have been between 100 and 300.

How Does Gaza's Health Ministry Count the Numbers?

The Health Ministry says it receives a flow of data from every hospital in the territory.

Hospital officials in Gaza told The Associated Press (AP) that they keep records of every wounded person and every dead. And they enter the information in a computerized system shared with the ministry.

Ashraf al-Qidra is a spokesperson for the ministry. He said when the flow of information is broken because of internet connection or electricity, the agency calls the hospitals to get numbers. The agency also collects data from other sources, including the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Last week, the ministry released a 212-page report listing every Palestinian killed in the war so far, including their names, identification numbers, ages and gender. A copy of the report, shared with the AP, names 6,747 Palestinians and says an additional 281 bodies have not yet been identified.

The list does not say where a person was killed. It also does not differentiate between civilians and fighters or say how they were killed – whether from Israeli airstrikes or Palestinian rocket fire. It describes all casualties as victims of "Israeli aggression."

Lt. Col. Richard Hecht is an Israeli military spokesman. He said of the report, "When the Hamas health agency comes out with the numbers, take it with a pinch of salt." In other words, he dismissed the report as something unlikely to be truthful. But he repeatedly refused to state the number of Palestinian deaths.

How reliable are Gaza's numbers?

International news agencies, humanitarian workers and rights groups have often used the ministry's numbers when an independent source is not available.

"These figures are professionally done and have proven to be reliable," said Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine director. He noted that the numbers do not differentiate between civilians' and fighters' deaths.

After the conflict, the U.N. humanitarian office usually publishes final numbers on deaths based on its research into medical records. In many cases, the U.N.'s counts have been fairly close to the Gaza Health Ministry's numbers.

After the 2008 war, the ministry reported 1,440 Palestinians killed; the U.N. reported 1,385.

In the 2014 war, the ministry reported 2,310 Palestinians killed; the U.N. reported 2,251.

And in the 2021 war, the ministry reported 260 Palestinians killed; the U.N. reported 256.

I'm Dan Friedell.

Hai Do adapted this story for Learning English based on reporting by VOA, The Associated Press and Reuters.


Words in This Story

casualty - n. a person who is hurt or killed during a war, accident,..

good-faith - n. an honest and proper way

accurate - adj. free from mistake or error

reflect - v. to show or make known

reliable - adj. able to trust or to be believed