What We Know About the Death Toll in Gaza

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Updated: | Originally published:

The question of how many people have died in Gaza since Israel began a bombing and ground campaign in response to Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 attack has taken on renewed urgency as President Biden tries to forestall a full assault by Israel against Hamas’ leadership and remaining battalions into the densely-populated city of Rafah. A recent decision by the United Nations to change how it reported Gaza's death toll has further created confusion, prompting some to incorrectly claim that the U.N. had dramatically lowered its estimate of those killed in the conflict. 

While Biden has kept his commitment to sell $1 billion in arms and ammunition to Israel, he announced on May 8 that he would pause a shipment of 2,000-pound bombs over concerns about their potential use inside Rafah. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said this week it “would be a mistake to launch a major military operation into the heart of Rafah that would put huge numbers of civilians at risk without a clear strategic gain." The Biden Administration has shared intelligence and tactics with Israel in an effort to prevent a large-scale bombardment in the city. All of those actions reflect growing concern within the U.S. government over the number of civilians who have been killed in the conflict.

Here’s what we know about Gaza’s death toll and where those estimates come from.

How many people have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7?

There is no independent source for the death toll in Gaza.  The U.S. says it doesn’t keep its own count of fatalities in Gaza. Neither does the World Health Organization or the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, both United Nations agencies that track fatalities in war zones. 

The United Nations has published and credited third-party estimates of the number of those killed and injured in the war. Those include estimates that more than 34,900 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and more than 1,200 people in Israel. 

The number of dead in Gaza is based on information released by three Hamas-controlled entities: the Gaza Ministry of Health, Gaza’s government media office and the Gaza chapter of the Palestinian Civil Defense, which provides emergency response there. Critics question the U.N.’s use of estimates based on data coming from Hamas, an organization that has controlled Gaza since 2007 and is committed to the elimination of Israel. The figures don’t distinguish between civilians and fighters killed.

The U.N. agencies have provided several reasons for crediting the figures coming out of Gaza. 

The agencies cite more than a decade of “generally accurate” numbers from the Gaza Ministry of Health through multiple mass-casualty conflicts there. U.N. officials say that the list of the dead compiled by the authorities in Gaza are used to issue death certificates that are in turn used for settling estates and land ownership. This creates an incentive for the ministry to accurately confirm the identities of those who have died, the U.N. says.

“Unfortunately, we have the sad experience of coordinating with the Ministry of Health on casualty figures every few years for large mass-casualty incidents in Gaza; and in past times, their figures have proven to be generally accurate,” Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, said on May 13 during a press briefing with reporters.

The U.N.’s World Health Organization also credits the data provided by Gaza’s health ministry, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva on May 14. Lindmeier said that the WHO has been told by the Gaza Ministry of Health that about 24,000 dead people had been formally identified and about 10,000 remained missing and had yet to be identified. The WHO believes thousands of those missing could still be buried under the rubble in active combat zones, Lindmeier said.

Both Israeli and U.S. officials have said that Hamas' tactics, including its use of civilian facilities like hospitals and schools for military purposes, have contributed to the war’s civilian death toll.

Why did the U.N. lower its death toll of women and children in Gaza?

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) caused confusion in early May when it changed how it reported the number of women and children killed in Gaza. 

For months, the agency had been regularly updating an estimated total death toll in Gaza and breaking that total down by gender and age. Those figures were based on information provided to the U.N. by three Hamas-controlled entities: the Gaza Ministry of Health, Hamas’s government media office, and the Gaza chapter of the Palestinian Civil Defense, which provides emergency response in Gaza.

On May 6, the U.N. agency published the Gaza government media office’s latest estimate that 14,500 children and 9,500 women had been killed. Two days later, OCHA reported a much lower number of Palestinian women and children killed in the conflict based on those who the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health claimed had been specifically identified by name. The new figures were 7,797 children and 4,959 women killed and subsequently identified.

OCHA did not change its overall estimate that more than 34,900 Palestinians have died. That larger total includes both those whose identities have been confirmed, and an estimate that 10,000 additional dead are missing and have not been accounted for. OCHA opted to change how it broke down the deaths after it began receiving more detailed information on verified, identified victims from the Gaza Ministry of Health, an OCHA official said.

The changed numbers drew attention to the continuing reliance by the U.N. and the U.S. government on Hamas-controlled entities for information about the conflict in Gaza.

“These numbers are having a profound influence on U.S. policy,” says David Adesnik, senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Adesnik is skeptical of the Gaza health ministry’s methods that rely on media reports to estimate how many are dead beyond those whose remains have been identified and says that Hamas-controlled entities “have shown they are willing to distort the truth.” The death toll has already shaped American foreign policy, says Adesnik. “There is strong evidence that the Biden Administration’s faith in numbers from the Gaza health ministry is one of the main reasons it has begun to put so much pressure on Israel,” Adesnik says.

How does the U.S. government describe the death toll?

The U.S. government has cited the same figures that Hamas-controlled entities have provided to the U.N. During his March 7 State of the Union speech, President Biden said that “more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed — most of whom are not Hamas.” Biden did not provide a source for that number, but the White House later confirmed that it was based on the Gaza Ministry of Health numbers.

The U.S. government again relied on the same tally in early May in a public State Department memo about whether U.S. weapons are being used to violate international laws of war. “The Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health is the primary source for these numbers, which international organizations generally deem credible, but do not differentiate between Hamas fighters and civilians,” read the report. 

How many of those killed in Gaza were Hamas fighters?

The U.S. hasn’t been able to independently verify how many Hamas fighters have been killed in Gaza. The Israeli government has said that about half of those killed there have been fighters. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu repeated this claim on May 12. During the “Call Me Back” podcast hosted by the former U.S. government advisor Dan Senor, Netanyahu said that about 30,000 people had been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, of those he said 14,000 were “combatants” and “around 16,000 civilians have been killed.” There has not yet been any independent confirmation of Israel's estimates. News outlets have previously cited Hamas officials estimating between 6,000 and 8,000 of their fighters have been killed.

In war zones, the percentage of civilians killed can vary widely. Studies have shown that more civilians die during fighting in urban areas. In a U.N. Security Council report titled, "Protection of civilians in armed conflict”, the U.N. examined the rate of civilian casualties in populated areas during conflicts in the year 2021. It found that 89 percent of deaths in urban areas were civilians. In non-urban areas that year, the civilian death rate fell to 10 percent.  

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