June 3, 2024 | Newsweek

How the UN Got Away With Wildly Inflating the Casualty Numbers in Gaza—and the Media Bought It

June 3, 2024 | Newsweek

How the UN Got Away With Wildly Inflating the Casualty Numbers in Gaza—and the Media Bought It

On May 6, a U.N. office reported that more than 9,500 women and 14,500 children had been killed so far in Gaza. The office had been reporting similar figures for nearly two months. Yet on May 8, the reported numbers fell to fewer than 5,000 women and 8,000 children—a reduction of more than 11,000 fatalities over all.

The U.N. did not call attention to the change, which was buried in the fine print of one of its numerous updates on Gaza. But a handful of journalists noticed. The first wave of headlines put the U.N. on the defensive: “United Nations halves estimate of women and children killed in Gaza“, “UN revises Gaza death toll,” and more along those lines.

Had the U.N. quietly admitted that its casualty estimates were wildly off the mark? Was it absolving Israel of responsibility for 11,000 deaths that may not have happened?

The U.N. rejected such claims. Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the Secretary-General, insisted that nothing of significance had changed. There had been no reduction, he said, in the total number of dead or in the number of women and children who had lost their lives. Rather, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had just chosen to present the data in a new and more accurate way.

The coherence of the U.N.’s story hinged on a single word: OCHA’s May 6 update had simply reported the number of fatalities. But on May 8, OCHA had reported the number of “identified” fatalities. This adjective supposedly indicated that the 11,000 women and children in question had not vanished; rather, OCHA now considered them to be unidentified casualties.

Arithmetic alone shows why this explanation is implausible. Haq himself observed “there’s about another 10,000-plus” unidentified casualties. But OCHA’s revision cut more than 11,000 from its estimate of female and child victims. To reconcile those numbers, every single unidentified victim (and then some) would have to be a woman or child.

But the problem goes much deeper than bad math. The U.N. continues to distort the meaning of “identified” as it seeks to distract attention from its mishandling of the casualty numbers. To follow this story, the crucial fact to know is that two separate Hamas-controlled entities have been providing casualty data to the U.N. and foreign media: One is the Gaza Health Ministry, the better known of the two. The other is Gaza’s Government Media Office (GMO), on whose data OCHA relied until its numbers plunged on May 8.

There is ample reason to distrust both sources. The Health Ministry originated false claims that an Israeli airstrike leveled al-Ahli Hospital in northern Gaza, killing 500 Palestinians last October. In fact, a Palestinian rocket caused the explosion, and there were many fewer victims. Nevertheless, the Health Ministry has continually presented more modest estimates than the GMO of how many women and children have been killed in Gaza.

The Health Ministry and GMO have been careful to provide the U.N. and foreign media with the same number, day after day, of total deaths in Gaza. But their numbers for women and children have diverged further and further over the past six months. Last December, OCHA acknowledged that GMO’s “methodology is unknown” and stopped using its data. But then OCHA started using GMO’s numbers again, even though the latter’s methods remained opaque.

The direct cause of the sudden drop in female and child fatalities on May 8 was that OCHA (once again) stopped using GMO figures and switched to reporting numbers from the Health Ministry. In miniscule letters next to an asterisk in OCHA’s May 8 report, there appear the words, “Source: MoH Gaza.”

Yet rather than provide this simple and straightforward explanation of what changed, the U.N. concocted a complicated story about data being recategorized. One can only speculate regarding motives, yet the U.N. would have looked foolish if it admitted to relying for months on GMO’s inflated numbers.

The U.N. could also count on the complexity of the issue to prevent most journalists from unraveling the story while working on deadline. What reporters failed to understand is that “unidentified” is a euphemism for cases where the Gaza Ministry of Health never had custody of an individual’s remains and may have no documentation that a death took place beyond a news report.

Late last year, the Ministry of Health revealed that its death toll did not just include individuals who passed through hospitals and morgues. In addition, the ministry had begun to count fatalities using information from “reliable media sources.” The ministry never indicated which sources those were, and Hamas keeps a tight leash on all media in Gaza. The number of deaths in this new category soon passed 10,000.

In early April, the ministry began to refer to these uncertain deaths as cases in which there was “incomplete data.” Then it renamed them again, describing them as cases where the deceased remains “unidentified.” This description suggests misleadingly that there is a body attached to each death in the ministry’s toll, a body that may visibly belong to a woman or child, albeit without a name. The U.N. has now capitalized on this confusion to explain away the sudden drop in its estimate of female and child fatalities.

Many top news organizations, such as CNN and Reuters, have bought into the U.N.’s story. Others, like The New York Times and the BBC, recognized the source of UN data had changed from GMO to the health ministry, but did not grasp the UN’s distortion of the term “identified.”

It remains to be seen whether the White House and State Department will revisit their decisions to trust whatever data the UN vouches for, even when it comes from Hamas-controlled sources. If they rediscover their skepticism, it may lead them to reconsider their policy of placing one roadblock after another in the way of Israel’s efforts to launch a decisive attack on Hamas’s final strongholds in southern Gaza.

Even if one pores over every bit of publicly available data, it is difficult to estimate the true number of deaths in Gaza. The latest update from the Ministry of Health puts the figure at 36,379, of which 10,866 are based on “incomplete data.” Unless the ministry can cite more than “reliable media sources” to document these fatalities, neither the U.N. nor the media should include them in their tallies. The ministry claims to have “complete data” for the remaining 25,513 individuals, yet the economist Michael Spagat, an expert on civilian casualties, found that the ministry lacked a valid I.D. number for more than 4,000 of the dead. Furthermore, the ministry says the list of records with complete data includes 3,715 cases where no body was recovered, but relatives reported the death in question.

An educated guess of the actual number would reflect that the ministry has documented in the neighborhood of 20,000 deaths, while remaining silent about how many thousands are Hamas fighters.

What we know for sure is that the U.N., the media, and the White House should stop treating data from Hamas-controlled sources as credible in the absence of independent verification.

David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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International Organizations Israel Israel at War