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Dr Ola Awad, President of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, speaks to AOAV about casualty counting and the death figures coming from Gaza

Dr Ola Awad is an economist with a comprehensive educational background, holding degrees in economics, an MBA from Boston University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Liverpool in business and management. Her career at the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) began in 2000, and she has since served in various capacities, including international relations and planning, before becoming the chief statistician. Under her leadership, PCBS has been recognised for its high quality and openness in data, contributing to its international reputation. In an interview with AOAV’s Professor Mike Spagat, Awad addresses the challenges faced by PCBS in data collection, particularly regarding death statistics amid conflict, emphasising the bureau’s commitment to accuracy and reliability.

Mike Spagat: Can you tell me very briefly about your background, including how you came to be the President of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics?

Ola Awad: Yes, I’m actually an economist. My first degree, it was in economics, and then I continued my study in statistics. While I was working in statistics, I was in the Statistics Bureau of Palestine. And I also did my MBA at Boston University and my PhD at the University of Liverpool in business and management. So I have different backgrounds from economics, statistics, and business and management. And I started working as a junior staff in this statistical bureau since 2000. And I have been working in different fields, starting by international relations and then engaged in statistics and then moved to the deputy head of planning and international affairs and a deputy of the chief statistician. And then at the end, I became the chief statistician of Palestine.

I have been the head of the International Association of Official Statistics in the past five years. And I was also co-chairing the high-level group of coordination and capacity building of the sustainable development goals, having all the national statistical organisations under this umbrella.

Mike Spagat: Please tell us a bit about the Statistics Bureau you head.

Ola Awad: The good part is that the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics is a very professional technical institute. In each country, you have this Bureau of Statistics where they produce official statistics that must satisfy high quality standards, within internationally accepted standards, so that the statistics can be comparable worldwide. The Central Bureau of Statistics was established after Oslo Agreement in 1994 so if you compare PCBS, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, with the rest of the statistical bureaus, we are a young statistical organisation. But I am happy to say that we are one of the very professional national statistical organisations, well recognised on the national, regional and on the international level. There are international organisations that they often do evaluation and assessments on all the national statistical organisations, and they rank us on highly on the quality standards that we are obtaining and on the openness of data that we are providing and publishing. And if you just Google about PCBS, you will that we are highly respected with a great reputation. We have achieved this with hard work and continuous learning and continuous of capacity development here.

The other good part is that we have here a young population. 68% of the total population in Palestine is under 30 years old. We benefit from this young generation in our Statistics Bureau and in the rest of other national organisations. This brings great added value and sustainability to this Bureau and to the rest.

The last point I would like also to highlight, that for Palestinians education is so important, more than food. We are raised this way as Palestinians in our house and our families. This is part of our culture. Education is your first priority, whether you want to work or you don’t want to work. It is a kind of a high protection for the individual to be well educated. And especially for women. The families consider education for women as crucial, as a kind of a defence and protection for her from any kind of circumstances that she might face in the future. So she can have this high protection with her wherever she is or whatever she is encountering. So that’s why you see Palestinians inside Palestine and also outside Palestine are really very well educated. And the number of educated people here is high compared with the rest of the world. And you don’t see illiteracy here in Palestine. It just disappeared. Because this issue is so crucial for the country within our culture mainly.

OK, that was a kind of short briefing about myself, the organisation and the environment.

Mike Spagat: Thank you very much for that. What is the connection between your Central Bureau of Statistics and the death statistics that have been coming out of the Gaza Ministry of Health?

Ola Awad: An official statistics system consists of three main resources or sources, I may say. The first two are censuses and surveys based on reliable sample size. And the third one is the administrative data that we get from the government, institutions, line ministries and so forth. Administrative registers include things like the population register and the death register. The population register is under the Ministry of Interior, the health register, and the death register is under the Ministry of Health. Wherever you go in the world, not only the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, whether in Sweden, Norway, Europe, US, you have a national statistical bureau where they consider these as their main sources.

So the death register is under the responsibility of the Ministry of Health, and it normally includes name, ID number, age, sex and the reason of death. How does the Ministry of Health get this and develop this register? There are databases all over the hospitals. For anyone who dies they have to register his name or her name, the ID number, the age, the sex and the reason of death. And we often have a collaboration with the Ministry of Health where we get a table of what we ask for. The Ministry of Health provide us with these tables that we consider it part of our resources. And we publish accordingly, and we update our data accordingly.

Mike Spagat: So my understanding is that, in a hospital, every time somebody dies there is some form to be filled out, probably on a computer, and they enter certain fields and you mentioned that these include cause of death.

Ola Awad: Absolutely, yes.

Mike Spagat: The file that the Ministry of Health released recently doesn’t give causes of death. However, the MoH did say that all the deaths in the file are caused ultimately by “Israeli aggression”. Now there must be a certain number of deaths happening in Gaza during the period covered by the data release that are due to natural causes. Are those mixed in with this file that the Ministry of Health released or is there some screening process based on causes of deaths that would exclude deaths due to natural causes?

Ola Awad: The death registry includes deaths of all causes of people who pass through hospitals. But the figures the Ministry of Health has been releasing is not the full death register. We get updates on only that the cause of death is due to the Israeli aggression against Gaza, that they were actually killed and they were bombed, you know, and they were killed. But if you ask me, does the full death register include other than this cause of death, yes, it does include others. It does include other causes, I mean, because of so many aspects. For example, we have some others that, I mean, we received, which are still few cases about elderly who died of sickness. A pregnant woman died also. But they are few cases compared to what is going on now.

Mike Spagat: Do all deaths pass through the hospitals.

Ola Awad: I may tell you, whatever the hospital receives, they register. But there are so many that they didn’t even, they didn’t arrive to the hospitals, and they are not registered. And there are missing people who are not reflected in the death register. So whoever is killed or died and reached the hospitals, they were registered. And the one who wasn’t, who was unable to reach the hospital and died then I don’t know what happened afterwards to them. You have so many missing kids, missing people. We know many names but they are still missing and we don’t find them. They are not included. The only thing that we are talking about so far is the number of people who reached the hospital, and they were dead. They are the one who made it into the death register.

Mike Spagat: Okay, so there is a full death registry that includes all deaths, at least the ones that pass through the hospitals. But the data that was released by the Ministry of Health, only includes violent deaths. They tried to leave out the deaths of, for example, an old person dying of a heart attack or a stroke.

Ola Awad: To answer you, yes, that’s correct.

Mike Spagat: Regarding the people who died and didn’t pass through the hospital, is there some process for eventually adding them to the death registry? Or do we think that they will their deaths will be lost forever?

Ola Awad: We have two type of coverage issues. First, there are some people who were killed and they didn’t they didn’t send them to the hospitals, of which we don’t know the number yet. And we have still missing people that have been recorded as missing. And we don’t know their status so far. But we can’t resolve these cases until there is actually a ceasefire. And then afterwards, we can work on that. But so far, we have absolutely no clue about the number of people who died. And there are also some people who were killed, but people were unable even to identify who are they. That’s why you may have noticed that people started to write their names on their body. So if any one of them were killed, they can at least recognize who are they. Because we have so many also cases that are not even included in the death register because they were not identified. Who are they?

Mike Spagat: Would you like to comment on the widespread view that the Ministry of Health data is untrustworthy because the Ministry of Health is controlled by Hamas?

Ola Awad: Thank you. First I will comment that this is really ridiculous. And let me answer professionally now. The Israeli occupation is engaged in aggression against Gaza. This time is not the first time. I may tell you that the Israeli occupation engaged in aggression in 2008, 2014, 21, and you have now 23. Let’s go back and let’s check. For all these times there was Hamas. And to be very well clear, I’m not a Hamas person. I’m not with Hamas, actually. I’m not affiliated to this political party. And I’m answering very professionally here. We have the UN and we have also human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch, counting deaths in 2008, 2014, and 2021. They are not Hamas people. They are international organizations. They are not affiliated to Hamas, neither to Palestine. And the figures for 2008, 14, and 21 were consistent with what has been published by the Ministry of Health. And here I’m talking also about the Ministry of Health in the West Bank. And the databases and the sources are the hospitals. So we have an experience of this occupation and aggression against Gaza and with counting the deaths. And it was so much consistent with the Human Rights Watch. Go back and double check if I’m right or wrong. So this is one of the proofs, how come this time it will be different?

The other thing that I want to say, what do you have in the register? You know that our population register is controlled by the Israelis. It’s not controlled by Palestinians. The Palestinian Ministry of Interior, they get a copy every six months from the Israelis. So you can bring the ID numbers of these people and match them to the population register. They are dead people now. When the Israelis update the population register, they will take them out. And they don’t have anymore the physical person. This is another way of making sure that these people have died.

The third proof for you. The World Bank and UNOCHA have satellite images of Gaza that they update regularly. So what I’m asking you now, double check from your side about the size of the building and establishment, which was totally destroyed and damaged and bombed by the Israelis. Do you know that the total population of Gaza is 2.2 million people? And the total area of Gaza is 365 square kilometers. So the population density rate in Gaza is 6,102 individual per square kilometer. These numbers are well known. They were counted in 2017 by the population census. I’m asking you now as a foreigner, bring any expert from your side and combine the damaged area of buildings and establishments with the numbers I have provided you. And ask your experts how many people will be killed with such damage?

Mike Spagat: Thank you. You mentioned 2008, 2014, 2021. During that period, have there been any substantial changes in how the Ministry of Health collects the data on deaths? Do you think that it’s done now exactly the way it was done back then or are there any changes?

Ola Awad: We, Palestine, as the rest of the countries, we have a death register. The death register is under the responsibility of the Ministry of Health. And this can be verified because the death register, you can’t put any name. It has to be a full name with the ID number, with the age, sex, and the cause of death. And it has to be reflected, linked with the population register. This is not the case just of Palestine. This is the case everywhere in any country. You have a population register controlled by the Ministry of Interior. You have a death register controlled by the Ministry of Health. And they are linked. The only thing for Palestine, which is different from the rest of the world, is our population register. When I have a newborn baby, although I’m a Palestinian, I’m not allowed, neither is the Palestinian Ministry of Interior allowed, to give me an ID number. The one who’s responsible to provide us with the ID number is the Israelis. So this is another proof – not even Hamas, although they are controlling in Gaza, is eligible to provide you with an ID number, because then you will be an unknown person. The one who provides you with the ID number is the Israelis. And then they provide it to the Ministry of Interior, and then I get the ID number of my newborn baby. And the death register we have, is also reflected in the population register, and they take out the dead people from this register when it is updated. And the one who updates this is not us, the Palestinians. It’s the Israelis who update the population register with everything. So we don’t have the control, and they have the proof more than we do. Ufortunately, it’s just a big lie [that Hamas controls the death registry]. It’s very ridiculous what is going on, you know, and how people are questioning the number of dead people. 

Mike Spagat: I’ve asked all of the questions that I’ve planned. Do you have anything that you want to add at this point?

Ola Awad: I want to add that as a Palestinian, and also as a chief statistician, we are heartbroken of what’s going on within our people in Gaza. There were around 5000 Palestinian political detainees in Israeli prisons. Since 7 October, Israeli forces have detained additionally more than 2,200 Palestinians including women and children. Testimonies of some released Palestinian prisoners and video evidence also point to numerous incidents of torture and other ill-treatment by Israeli forces including severe beatings and deliberate humiliation of Palestinians who are detained in dire conditions.

In the West Bank, also, they are attacking the cities. Today, for example, in Jenin, we have six martyrs. Just a few hours ago, and about five with dangerous injuries.

I am a Palestinian, well-educated, intellectual person, believing in human rights, believing in the sustainable development goals and working on that. And then when it comes, you see no countries, Arabs, Europeans, no one and no UN agencies or the UN itself succeeded to call seriously for a ceasefire with all what we are watching. On the international level we are talking about rights, and we are evaluated on what we are doing, and such big lies, such big lies on the global level. I mean, what I want to say as a Palestinian and as a mother, if a Jew in any of cities, in any country, was bombed, I want to see what the world will say. And that’s why it’s so painful and sad that there’s none, none, not except even one, with a really serious will towards a ceasefire.

Before there was social media, so what was going on with our struggle wasn’t well shown to the people and to the world. Now you are seeing and watching everything. You see how they are bombing. You see how they are killing people. And I mean, there’s a big silence. Is that fine? I’m not talking about the people of various countries, because we have seen the solidarity, which we really highly respect. We respect the humanity of the people, but not actually the governments, not the governments at all, because each one of them, they are working on their agendas. Although, they are the one who’s holding the flag of human rights, but they are not actually acting when it comes to Palestinians. They are really very much silent. Why? I have really such sadness inside. Although I have my child, she’s actually in her 12th grade, and she was going to study international law and going to the human rights side. I told her not anymore. This is a big lie. Don’t go for it. It’s such a big lie. Why do you want to go to this something that does not apply?  I have a really very painful and sad feeling about even the word.

Mike Spagat: Thank you so much for this interview.