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Has international legal challenge changed the patterns of death in the Gaza war?

The Gaza War, a conflict marked by intense violence and profound human suffering, has prompted significant scrutiny and analysis of the death numbers and the procedures for the recording of casualties. Michael Spagat from Royal Holloway, University of London, and Every Casualty Counts tries here to explain patterns in the data that have been widely overlooked and little understood.

At the onset of the war, the Gaza Ministry of Health (MoH) established a meticulous system for documenting casualties. This approach relied heavily on records from hospital morgues, capturing detailed information such as the name, age, sex, and ID number of each deceased individual. The transparency of this system was particularly commendable, as the IDs assigned by Israeli authorities allowed for cross-referencing with Gaza’s official population register, ensuring a high degree of accuracy in the recorded data.

However, the landscape of casualty recording changed dramatically in early November when several hospitals were forced to close due to Israeli attacks. This disruption severely compromised the morgue-based recording system. In response, in December, the MoH announced that it was supplementing its records with reported deaths from “reliable media sources” and introduced a new form for individuals to report deaths they were aware of.

This dual approach—integrating form-based data with morgue records into a single database, while apparently maintaining a separate database for media-reported deaths—marked a significant shift. Although this new system may have helped fill the gaps left by the compromised morgue system, it also reduced overall transparency, particularly concerning the media-based data, which remained opaque with no detailed database or operational explanation provided by the MoH. The MoH’s announcement of total deaths began to be divided into two components: morgue-and-form-based and media-based.

Despite the challenges it faced, the MoH released spreadsheets on four occasions, listing the deaths recorded through the morgue-and-form-based component of their system. These releases offered crucial insights, notably debunking the widely quoted Hamas line that women and children comprised 70% of the Gazans killed at all times throughout the war (and not just the start). In fact, the detailed data revealed two distinct phases in the conflict: before and after January, with a notable increase in the percentage of men among those killed starting in January. Unfortunately, global understanding of this key element in the war’s dynamics has been obfuscated by the persistence of the 70% figure.

This marked shift in demographics of death points to an important change in the nature of the war. I have two theories that might explain the change.

Theory one posits first that the tactics used during high-intensity periods emphasise aerial bombing over ground assaults/shooting and finishes with the observation that percentages of women, children and elderly among the dead tend to be higher under the former tactics than under the latter ones. The above table offers some support for this theory – daily death rates and the percentage of men among the dead both peak during the first few weeks of the war. However, the patterns are not a perfect fit for this theory because the daily death rate decreased substantially in the last two months of 2023 while the percentage of men among the dead hardly budged. The strong increase the percentage of men comes only in the new year, two months after the daily death rate had dropped by more than a factor of 3. Of course, there may also been a geographic shift over time where women and children left ‘kill zones’ to flee to the relative sanctuary of enforced refugee camps, and this internal exodus impacted the fatality figures by gender and age.

The second theory that might explain the demographic shift is that the genocide case brought by South Africa against Israel in late December might have prompted Israeli military operations to become more targeted towards combatants – most of whom are men – or, at least, fighting-aged males. That is, the IDF may have attempted to fend off the legal action by altering its rules of engagement to reduce the proportion of women, children, and elderly among the casualties. This theory fits well with the timing of the demographic shift and is consistent with Israel’s efforts to defend themselves vigorously in the case before the International Criminal Court, e.g., by hiring prominent lawyers. If this is the case, of course, it shows that the IDF were capable of being more targeted toward fighting-aged-males throughout the whole campaign and raises questions as to why they didn’t do so.

Overall, the analysis underscores the complexity of casualty recording in wartime Gaza, highlighting how tactics, conflict intensity and surprising factors such as a court case can influence the demographics of death. Pre-October 7 data from sources like B’tselem is comprehensive and highly detailed, including information on the weapons used in each killing. The absence of equally detailed post-October 7 data leaves some questions about the evolving patterns of casualties difficult to answer. This ongoing conflict, with its shifting dynamics and complex casualty recording systems, continues to challenge analysts and policymakers alike in their efforts to understand and respond to the human toll of war.

In conclusion, the MoH’s casualty recording system, despite its initial rigour and transparency, has faced significant challenges as the conflict progressed. The introduction of additional data sources and reporting mechanisms, while necessary, complicated the overall transparency and reliability of the casualty data. The demographic and intensity shifts observed in the data provide important insights into the evolving nature of the conflict, but these phenomena have not yet prompted the attention they deserve.  It may be that international legal action has caused an important change in military tactics. Understanding these patterns is crucial for developing informed responses and interventions that address the humanitarian impacts of such conflicts.