May 19, 2024
Palestinians shop as they prepare for the upcoming holiday of Eid al-Fitr marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in the northern Gaza Strip, April 9, 2024.

Why the U.N.’s Gaza Casualty Figures Were So Off

The U.N. nearly halved its estimate of women and children killed in Gaza after relying on figures from Hamas-controlled organizations

The U.N. offered no explanation for the sudden change. On May 6, the body’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released an infographic showing that more than 9,500 women and 14,500 children had been killed in Gaza. Two days later, OCHA’s updated graphic cut those numbers nearly in half, showing that 4,959 women and 7,797 children had actually lost their lives — a combined reduction of more than 11,000. When a reporter pressed U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq to explain the revision, all he received was a standard disclaimer that “in the fog of war, it’s difficult to come up with numbers.”

True enough, yet for months the U.N. put its trust in numbers generated by Hamas-controlled sources, and the Biden administration put its trust in the U.N. These numbers have served as the basis for relentless criticism of Israel, with Joe Biden accusing it of “indiscriminate bombing” and deciding, ultimately, to withhold shipments of weapons. In his State of the Union address in March, Biden told Congress that 30,000 Palestinians had died in the war, without giving any indication that this number came from a Hamas-run ministry. If 11,000 fewer women and children than previously reported have died, it becomes difficult to portray the Israeli armed forces as an out-of-control war machine. Instead, the president should return to his policy of marching in lockstep with the Israelis toward the common goal of eradicating Hamas.

To understand the U.N.’s sudden revision of the casualty data, one has to know there are actually two separate Gaza institutions that generate and distribute these numbers. Both are controlled by Hamas, but the information they release is often contradictory. The first institution is the Gaza Ministry of Health, which runs the hospitals and receives their information about casualties. The second is the Government Media Office (GMO), which shares information from the Ministry of Health but makes explained additions. As OCHA itself admitted with regard to GMO, “their methodology is unknown.” Nevertheless, OCHA has relied on GMO data since the start of the war — on May 6, OCHA cited GMO as its source for the claim that 9,500 women and 14,500 children had died in Gaza.

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