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AP Analysis Finds Flaws in Gaza Health Ministry鈥檚 Numbers

Report claims the Ministry has inflated the percentage of women and children killed during the war.
[additional-authors]
June 7, 2024
People inspect damage and remove items from their homes following Israeli airstrikes on April 07, 2024 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

On June 7, The Associated Press (AP) published an of the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry鈥檚 count of deaths in the Gaza war that found flaws and inconsistencies in the ministry鈥檚 numbers following an examination of the data.

The AP reviewed the ministry鈥檚 death tolls released in October, January, March and April and found that they were 鈥減rovided without supporting data. And as recently as March, the ministry鈥檚 daily reports claimed that 72% of the dead were women and children, even as underlying data clearly showed the percentage was well below that.鈥 Further, the AP reported that 鈥渢he records show a steady decline in the overall proportion of women and children who have been killed: from 64% in late October, to 62% as of early January, to 57% by the end of March, to 54% by the end of April. Yet throughout the war, the ministry has claimed that roughly two-thirds of the dead were women and children.鈥 The latest figures from the ministry showed that 鈥渨omen and children made up 38% of the newly and fully identified deaths鈥 in April, per the AP.

The AP claimed to have discovered 鈥渇laws in the Palestinian record keeping.鈥 As Gaza鈥檚 hospital system collapsed in December and January, 鈥渢he ministry began relying on hard-to-verify 鈥榤edia reports鈥 to register new deaths,鈥 the AP reported. 鈥淚ts March report included 531 individuals who were counted twice, and many deaths were self-reported by families, instead of health officials.鈥 The AP also noted that the ministry鈥檚 numbers don鈥檛 mention the number of Hamas terrorists that have been killed during the war. The outlet did acknowledge that 鈥渢he Health Ministry says it has gone to great lengths to accurately compile information but that its ability to count and identify the dead has been greatly hampered by the war. The fighting has crippled the Gaza health system, knocking out two-thirds of the territory鈥檚 36 hospitals, closing morgues and hampering the work of facilities still functioning.鈥

Abraham Wyner, a professor of statistics and data science at The Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania who penned a March 6 in Tablet alleging that the Gaza Health Ministry was fabricating the numbers, told The Journal in a phone interview that the AP is 鈥渞eporting things that I think are mostly true.鈥 鈥淭he number of women and children [civilian casualties] has never been as high as Hamas has claimed,鈥 he said. 鈥淭hey were claiming that 72% of the casualties total were women and children, now they have dropped that number down to 50% without reflecting on the fact that up until now, they鈥檝e been reporting these numbers with great accuracy and now they鈥檙e saying, 鈥榦h we really don鈥檛 have evidence to back up that number,鈥 which is essentially testifying that they鈥檝e been making it up.鈥 Wyner also contended that the 50% figure is still 鈥渢oo high.鈥

The AP report seems to suggest that the decline in women and children deaths is due to a change in the Israel Defense Force鈥檚 tactics. 鈥淎fter marching across most of Gaza and saying it had achieved many key objectives, Israel then began withdrawing most of its ground forces,鈥 the AP analysis stated. 鈥淚t reduced the frequency of aerial bombings and has focused in recent months on smaller drone strikes and limited ground operations. As the intensity of fighting has scaled back, the death toll has continued to rise, but at a slower rate 鈥 聽and with seemingly fewer civilians caught in the crossfire.鈥

Wyner, however, does not think that the declining civilian death rate is due to a change in Israeli tactics.

鈥淚t鈥檚 not so much Israel鈥檚 tactics that have changed. The population in Gaza has responded to Israel鈥檚 tactics a little differently,鈥 the Wharton professor argued. 鈥淚 think at the start of the war, Israel gave ample opportunity to civilians to leave the combat zone and they knocked and they dropped information, and yet people didn鈥檛 leave 鈥 I think now people have left.鈥 Wyner pointed to how Israel recently managed to evacuate 鈥渁lmost a million civilians out of Rafah. The fighting doesn鈥檛 have civilians right in front of people鈥檚 paths anymore.鈥

The AP did feature quotes from those who defend the Gaza Health Ministry鈥檚 numbers. University of London EconomicsProfessor Michael Spagat, who chairs the board of the Every Casualty Counts nonprofit, told the AP that while the data is becoming 鈥渋ncreasingly flawed,鈥 it doesn鈥檛 鈥渘ecessarily change the overall picture鈥 and that the ministry is doing the best it can. Human Rights Watch (HRW) Israel and Palestine Director Omar Shakir told the AP that HRW views the ministry鈥檚 numbers as credible because of the ministry鈥檚 access to hospitals and morgues; Shakir argued that the ministry鈥檚 death tolls may be undercounting the total dead due to bodies being buried under rubble. Dr. Moatasem Salah, who directs the Gaza Health Ministry鈥檚 emergency center, told the AP that those accusing the ministry of cooking the books are showing 鈥渄isrespect to the humanity for any person who exists here鈥 and doubled down on the figure that 70% of those killed have been women and children. The AP paraphrased Salah鈥檚 claim that 鈥渢he overall death toll is much higher than what has been reported because thousands of people remain missing, are believed to be buried in rubble, or their deaths were not reported by their families.鈥

Wyner called the 鈥渦ndercounting鈥 argument 鈥渁 talking point, not a reality,鈥 claiming to have heard from an Israeli military briefing that 鈥渂ecause of the hostages, they鈥檙e actually investigating the rubble and doing their best to pull bodies to make sure there aren鈥檛 Israelis in there.鈥

He also claimed there is 鈥渃ircular鈥 sourcing with the numbers. 鈥淭he U.N. will say a number comes from Gaza, and Gaza will say it comes from the U.N. 鈥 It鈥檚 circular.鈥

The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, has previously published that claimed the Gaza Health Ministry鈥檚 numbers are credible. Wyner criticized the authors of those articles as being 鈥減artisan鈥 and contended that The Lancet articles 鈥渄idn鈥檛 actually investigate the data fully.鈥 鈥淭hey almost were like, 鈥榳e want to accept this data so let鈥檚 look at things in it we think look right,鈥 as opposed to looking at the data to find things that look wrong, which is the actual scientific method,鈥 Wyner said.

Wyner did acknowledge that it 鈥渋s impossible to ascertain鈥 the true death toll in the war, as it will 鈥渂e months before we have a correct accounting.鈥

Commentary Magazine Senior Editor Seth Mandel it is 鈥渁 major media scandal鈥 that mainstream media outlets uncritically reported on the Gaza Health Ministry鈥檚 numbers. 鈥淚 don鈥檛 have much faith that it鈥檒l be treated as such,鈥 he wrote, noting that 鈥渢he AP and others had to revise numbers in a聽聽about an Israeli strike on a Hamas command center in a building that was once used as a school.鈥 The editor鈥檚 note from the AP stated that they initially reported that nine women and 14 children were killed in that strike; in actuality, it was three women, nine children and 21 men. The AP acknowledged that one of their reporters 鈥渉ad counted the bodies but was unable to look beneath the shrouds.鈥

鈥淗amas showed reporters shrouds and told them what was in them, and the reporters dutifully repeated what they were told,鈥 Mandel added. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 the process for a story like this. And it turned out while Hamas wouldn鈥檛 name who was in the shrouds, Israel has now done so. You will not be surprised to learn that at least a quarter of them were聽.鈥

David Adesnik, senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, in a statement, 鈥淔or six-plus months, the U.N. and the media, not to mention the White House, failed to conduct basic due diligence on numbers from the Hamas-run Health Ministry they publicized uncritically. Let鈥檚 hope this marks a turning point, where all those organizations begin to examine how their efforts validated Hamas propaganda.鈥

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