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Gaza Ministry of Health releases detailed new casualty data amidst confusion of UN’s death numbers in Gaza

On April 30, the Gaza Ministry of Health (MoH) released a fourth detailed list (hereafter “list 4”) documenting individuals killed in the conflict since October 7, 2023. This report updates the analyses of previous lists (list 1, list 2 and list 3) and addresses the matters surrounding UNOCHA’s recent shift in how it reports the Gaza death toll. Key issues include the ongoing decline in data quality in the MoH lists, discrepancies in death statistics between MoH and the Government Media Office (GMO), and the urgent need for a transparent methodology to reconcile top-line death numbers with detailed listings.

The New Detailed List from the Gaza Ministry of Health
The main takeaways from the new list – list 4 – are:

1. The decline in data quality that AOAV flagged in February continues. List 4 contains 1,674 reported deaths with missing IDs, 829 with the wrong number of digits in their listed IDs and 1,519 with the requisite 9 digits but with invalid sequences of digits.  1,206 entries have missing ages yet accompanying pdfs nevertheless classify these victims as children, men, women or elderly.

2. The percentage of women and children among the dead, accepting all listed deaths as valid, dropped slightly from 56.4% at the end of March (list 3) to 54.4% at the end of April (list 4). Thus, 42.6% of the deaths in April appear to have been of women and children.

3. The MoH has still not released a database or methodology that can bridge the gap between the regularly released top-line numbers killed, 34,535  as of April 30, and listed deaths, 24,653 on the same date.[1]

MoH characterisations of the basis for this gap range from “reliable media sources” to “reports from journalists and first responders” to, most recently, “martyrs who do not have complete data…according to reports and media sources”.

UNOCHA’s change of course
Until recently UNOCHA just passed along death numbers from Gaza’s Government Media Office (GMO) rather than from the MoH. This practice created a latent problems since we have known that the GMO is an unreliable source for these numbers since as early as February.  

The GMO regularly releases numbers that assign roughly 70% of all deaths to women and children. Yet the corresponding MoH percentages, currently 54.4%, are much lower.

These two incompatible views of reality collided when, two days apart, UNOCHA published:

1.  A GMO-based infographic on May 6 claiming more than 24,000 woman and child deaths out of 34,735 total deaths.

2.  An MoH-based infographic on May 8 claiming 12,756 woman and child deaths out of a sub-total of 24,686 plus an additional 10,158 unidentified dead without a demographic breakdown. This infographic also reported1,924 elderly (60+) deaths, 780 of whom are women according to list4.

UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq then denied, with some justification, the widely circulated claim that the UN had halved its woman-and-child figures overnight. Haq encouraged analysts to “do the math”, i.e., to recognise that 12,756 is extracted from the lower base of 24,686, not from the higher base of 34,735. Therefore, the UN had not halved its reported numbers since the additional 10,158 must contain many women and children.

Mr. Haq did not, however, complete his math by deriving the number of women and children required among the 10,158 unidentified (according to him) victims necessary to reconcile the May 6 infographic with the May 8 one. The answer is more than 10,464.

Thus, we cannot join up the two infographics even if we assume both that all unidentified bodies can, despite being unidentified, still be classified as men, women or children[2] and that none of them are men.

Moreover, Mr Haq’s characterization of “10,000-plus bodies who still have to be fully identified” seems implausible. First, list 2, list 3 and list 4 already contain many unidentified, or partially identified, victims including hundreds of entries without listed ages or IDs. Second, after December 12 the MoH stated repeatedly that the supplements to its detailed lists were based not on unidentified bodies but, rather, on “reliable media sources.”

It would make little sense for the MoH to maintain a morgue-based body counting database that itself contains many unidentified bodies but not include many other unidentified bodies in this database, instead holding them off to the side in a separate unavailable database while describing them in writing as documented by reliable media reports.

What next?
Going forward, UNOCHA and the media should not credit the GMO’s 70% death claim and should, more generally, view the GMO as an unreliable source on the Gaza death toll. In addition, they should press the MoH for a methodology and database that might underpin the numbers it regularly adds to the counts derived from its detailed lists.

The MoH lists have the great virtue that they focus attention on individually named victims of the war. The GMO, and by extension UNOCHA, have diverted attention away from these individuals and onto indefensible woman-and-child percentages. They thus diminish the emotional impact of the MoH’s casualty recording work.

We must always remember that health professionals working under unimaginably horrible circumstances prepare the MoH lists. These lists have many flaws, yet they still provide rich insight into the terrific human costs of the war. They will also form the backbone for all post-war work that will strive to account fully for every individual killed in the war.  

As UNOCHA and other organisations move forward, it is crucial to prioritise accurate and individual-focused casualty reporting. By addressing these issues, we can better understand the true human cost of the conflict and ensure that each victim is appropriately accounted for.

[1] The gap between 24,653 and the total of 23,447 in the above table is the 1,206 deaths without ages on list4.

[2] Mr Haq does seem to sense the problem that identification and demographic classification are linked: “And so, then the details of those — which of those are children, which of those are women — that will be reestablished once the full identification process is complete.”