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Why Are Some Parties Skeptical of Palestinian Health Statistics on War Casualties?

Misbar's Editorial Team Misbar's Editorial Team
3rd March 2024
Why Are Some Parties Skeptical of Palestinian Health Statistics on War Casualties?
International organizations trust Palestinian Ministry of Health stats (Getty)

The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, stated that Israel has killed around 25,000 women and children since October 7, adding that it can and should do more to protect civilians.

Austin's statement, made during a Thursday hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services, came in response to a question about the number of Palestinian women and children killed by Israel. He responded, "more than 25,000."

Austin also noted that since the start of the war on Gaza, approximately 21,000 precision-guided munitions have been sent to Israel.

The Pentagon Backtracks on Austin’s Statements

After Austin's statements circulated, Hebrew news reports suggested that the minister was possibly exaggerating the figures announced by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

The U.S. Department of Defense spokesman, Patrick Ryder, hastened to clarify that Austin's statements, wherein he “presented the death toll in Gaza, were based on the numbers of the Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip.”

Pentagon head says over 25,000 women, kids killed in Gaza, inflating Hamas claim

According to Al-Hurra TV, he stressed: “We cannot independently verify the accuracy of these numbers.”

In a clarification reported by the Jerusalem Post, the Pentagon stated that Austin "does not strictly adhere to these numbers."

“During today’s hearing, Secretary Austin was asked how many women and children died in Gaza,” Pentagon deputy spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told the newspaper. She added: “For clarification; the secretary's answer was quoting an estimate from Hamas that more than 25,000 Palestinians were killed in Gaza.”

She stressed: “We cannot independently verify the casualty numbers in Gaza.”

The newspaper said it asked Singh why Austin decided to cite Hamas numbers exclusively instead of the combined numbers of the Israeli army and Hamas, but it has not received a response yet.

The Jerusalem Post, however, points out that Austin is one of the staunchest pro-Israel advocates within the Biden administration. Nevertheless, it claims that tensions have recently escalated between the two sides due to the increasing number of Palestinian deaths and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reluctance to commit to relinquishing control of the Gaza Strip to a third party acceptable to the US, the West, and its Arab allies.

UN Agencies Admit No Grounds for Doubting Gaza’s Health Statistics

On Thursday, February 29, the Gaza Strip's Ministry of Health declared that over 30,000 individuals have died in the Israeli war on Gaza. UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini stated on his “X” platform account that “the number of Palestinian fatalities has reached 30,000, which is an unprecedented figure.”

Last January, UNICEF stated that the war on the Gaza Strip is “a war on children, but it seems that these facts are not being heard.”

The organization further added that according to reports, 70% of the victims are women and children.

Despite Israeli skepticism about the numbers published by the Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip, international organizations assert that they have no reason to doubt the figures issued by the Ministry of Health.

The death toll in Gaza exceeds 30,000, and calls for a ceasefire are renewed

In November of last year, the Associated Press reported that during the four wars between Israel and Hamas, United Nations agencies often cited the death toll provided by the Ministry of Health in regular reports. The same figures are also used by the Palestinian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In the aftermath of the war, the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs published a final death toll based on its own research into medical records.

In all cases, according to the agency, United Nations statistics were largely consistent with the numbers provided by the Ministry of Health in Gaza, with minor discrepancies.

The French daily, Libération, stated that the latest figures announced by the Palestinian Ministry of Health underestimate the actual toll because they do not include individuals who died outside of hospitals, whether they were hastily buried or are still under the rubble.

In a report published on February 28, the newspaper stated that “due to the media blockade imposed by Israel, which prevents journalists from entering the Palestinian territory, the massacre unfolds behind closed doors, and the individual tragedies behind each death fade into the statistical haze.”

In an article published earlier in January, the newspaper raised questions about the reasons behind underestimating the casualty figures of the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, despite the significant number of victims.

Des dizaines de milliers de morts à Gaza : pourquoi les chiffres de victimes de l’offensive israélienne sont sous-estimés

At the time, Tarik Jašarević, a spokesman for the World Health Organisation, told Libération that the “the numbers announced could have been underestimated based on the past conflicts in the occupied Palestinian territories and other areas.”

Economics professor Michael Spagat, head of “Every Casualty Counts” Association, also confirmed that he “will not be surprised to discover that the actual number of deaths resulting from war is twice as high” as the figures provided by the Ministry of Health.

Experts told the BBC that the actual death toll from the Israeli attack on the Strip is likely much higher because many hospitals, where deaths are typically recorded, are no longer operational.

Palestinians weeping as they receive bodies of loved ones after an Israeli airstrike on February 27, 2024, in Rafah, Gaza. (Getty)
Palestinians weeping as they receive bodies of loved ones after an Israeli airstrike on February 27, 2024, in Rafah, Gaza. (Getty)

The New York Times reports that the numbers given by the Gaza Ministry of Health do not distinguish between combatants and civilians. While it remains unclear how many of the casualties were Hamas fighters, many international observers, as per The New York Times, believe that the overall toll announced by the ministry can be relied upon.

The newspaper also referenced an article from the British medical journal "The Lancet", published in November of last year, in its report released on Thursday. The article stated that “an examination of death reports from the Ministry of Health's initial weeks shows reasonable data quality” and that “the deaths were among Gaza's population groups, which are probably mostly civilian.”

Israel Claims That Half of the Victims Were Hamas Members

However, Israel claims to have killed between 10,000 and 12,000 Hamas members. It also indicates that other Palestinian civilians were killed by mistaken rockets fired by Hamas, at a rate ranging from 10 to 15 percent.

According to what was reported by the Jerusalem Post, if it is assumed that the number of Palestinian deaths provided by the pro-Hamas Ministry of Health, which is 30,000, is correct, this means that the number of Palestinian civilian deaths could likely range between 15,000 and 18,000, slightly less than 25,000.

Did Israel Kill This Number of Hamas Members?

No reliable and independent source has published the number of casualties from Hamas during the recent Israeli war on the Gaza Strip. Also, the Hamas movement has not announced the number of its members killed in it.

On the other hand, reports of the killing of six thousand members of the Al-Qassam Brigades have been denied since the beginning of the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip. This statistic was published by Reuters news agency, citing an unnamed official from the movement, who is said to be living in Qatar.

A member of the movement's political bureau, Izzat Al-Risheq, said in a statement, “There is no truth to what Reuters reported, attributed to a Hamas leader, regarding the number of martyrs from the Al-Qassam Brigades during the fighting against the occupation army.”

the number of martyrs from the Al-Qassam Brigades during the fighting against the occupation army

For its part, the BBC published an investigation into the numbers of Hamas deaths published by the Israeli army and found that few of the visual scenes released by the occupation forces contain evidence of the killing of the movement members.

According to the network, some experts are concerned that the Israeli army may count “some non-combatants as combatants simply because they are part of the territory administered by Hamas.”

Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer in security studies at King's College London, told the BBC that “Israel has a very loose approach regarding membership in Hamas, which includes any affiliation with the movement, including government or administrative employees.”

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