Palestinians mourn relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, at a hospital morgue in Deir al-Balah, on July 9. AP

Israel continues to pummel people in Gaza with bombs and missiles. The tragedy mounts, as does the death toll rises. It is a grim picture of the human cost of territorial conflict.

Amid this, the Gaza Ministry of Health, on Wednesday (July 10) reported that at least 38,295 people have been killed in the ongoing war, with 88,241 wounded since October 7.

While numbers like this trickle in regularly, the data is only becoming harder to gather. In fact, the death toll reported by the Gaza Ministry of Health remain as controversial as ever- with or without reason.

We explain why the data collection is becoming more difficult, what the controversy is, and what the actual estimate of number of killed Gazans is.

Data collection: Why is it so hard?

Before the war in Gaza, public health experts told Reuters that the area had strong population statistics and better health information systems than most Middle Eastern countries.

During the initial months of the war, the number of deaths was determined by counting the bodies that were brought to hospitals, and the data included names and identity numbers for most of those who were killed.

As the conflict continued, fewer hospitals and morgues remained operational. Traditional reporting methods, which rely on hospital records and official documentation, were significantly disrupted. Communication networks were ravaged, too. Those two things are the primary reason for the increased difficulty in obtaining accurate data and verifying it.

Israel’s attacks have destroyed critical healthcare infrastructure in Gaza. Representational image/AP

To adapt, the Gaza Health Ministry has had to rely more heavily on information from reliable media sources and first responders. This shift, while necessary, has led to a significant drop in the quality and quantity of the detailed data that was previously recorded. As a result, the ministry now separately reports the number of unidentified bodies among the total death toll.

As of May 10, 2024, 30 per cent of the 35,091 reported deaths were unidentified- a testament to the challenges in gathering information in such a volatile environment.

The reliance on alternative data sources has also opened the door to skepticism (even more than already existing). Some officials and news agencies have used this shift to question the veracity of the reported figures, casting doubt on the reliability of the data coming from Gaza.

Controversy surrounding the numbers

There is no independent source for the death toll in Gaza. The United States, for instance, does not maintain its own count of fatalities in Gaza, nor do major international organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which typically track fatalities in war zones.

The death toll figures from Gaza are primarily based on information released by three Hamas-controlled entities: the Gaza Health Ministry, the Gaza government media office, and the Gaza chapter of the Palestinian Civil Defence.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 38,295 people. Reuters

Critics have long speculated that data from these sources is inherently biased, as Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007 and has political motivations that could influence the reporting of casualty figures.

Israeli authorities have also contested the figures provided by the Gaza Health Ministry. Many have pointed to the possibility that the numbers may be inflated or manipulated for political purposes.

However, despite these controversies, the numbers reported by the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry have historically been accepted as accurate by international organisations, including the United Nations and the WHO. Several independent studies and analyses have supported the ministry’s figures, indicating that claims of data fabrication are largely implausible.

For instance, a research paper published in The Lancet in December 2023 found no evidence of inflated mortality reporting from the Gaza Health Ministry. The study highlighted that the ministry has historically provided accurate mortality data, with discrepancies between ministry reports and independent United Nations analyses ranging from 1.5 per cent to 3.8 per cent in previous conflicts.

UN agencies have added to the Gaza Health Ministry’s reliability. They have noted that these numbers are used to issue death certificates, which are then used for legal and administrative purposes, such as settling estates and land ownership. This means that there is substantial incentive for the ministry to accurately confirm the identities of those who have died, ensuring that the data is as precise as possible under the circumstances.

UN agencies have added to the Gaza Health Ministry’s reliability. Reuters

Fuelling public scepticism of the current reports by the Gaza Ministry of Health is in fact in greater interest of those who wish to prolong the war. This is because the lack of faith in the data could undermine the efforts to reduce the harm that civilians in Palestine are facing. It could also hinder the path of life-saving assistance.

Estimating the true death toll

Given the complexities and controversies surrounding the reported figures, estimating the true death toll in Gaza is challenging. The reported numbers are likely to be underestimates. The destruction of healthcare infrastructure, severe shortages of essential resources, and the inability of the population to flee to safer areas all contribute to a higher death toll than reported.

According to Reuters, the United Nations estimates that as of February 29 this year, 35 per cent of buildings in the Gaza Strip had been destroyed. This suggests that a significant number of bodies remain buried in the rubble, with estimates indicating that more than 10,000 additional deaths could be attributed to this factor alone. In conflicts, indirect deaths—those resulting from the broader impact of war on health, infrastructure, and living conditions—can range from three to 15 times the number of direct deaths.

Palestinians search for bodies and survivors in the rubble of a residential building destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, July 3, 2024. AP

Applying a conservative estimate of four indirect deaths per one direct death to the previously reported 37,396 deaths suggests that the true death toll could be as high as 186,000 or more, according to a study published in The Lancet last week. If we apply this calculation to the current death toll, which is 38,295, the actual number of Gazans who have died due to Israel’s ruthless attacks in Gaza comes to over 191,400.

This would mean that over 8 per cent of Gaza’s population, based on the 2022 estimate of 2,375,259 people, has been affected by the conflict.

With inputs from agencies

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