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Joe Biden doubts figures issued by Gazan officials. International agencies say they are mostly accurate

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Israel has killed more than 8,000 Palestinians in its bombardment of the Gaza Strip in recent weeks, according to the territory’s health ministry. Nearly half the victims are children, it says. These reports have led to condemnations of Israel. They add urgency to widespread demands for a ceasefire in its war against Hamas, a militant group that murdered some 1,400 Israelis on October 7th. But on October 25th President Joe Biden said he had “no confidence” in the casualty figures published by Gaza’s health officials. How reliable, in fact, is the death toll published by Palestinian authorities?

Doubters cite a number of reasons for scepticism. One is that Gaza’s most senior health official is appointed by Hamas, which seized control of the enclave from its rival, Fatah, after a brief conflict in 2007. A White House spokesman, following up on Mr Biden’s comments, described the ministry as “just a front for Hamas”. During this conflict the United Nations, which usually provides its own regular assessment of casualties, has relied on the health ministry’s figures, because the intensity of the fighting has impeded its own data collection.

Another reason for scepticism is the way Hamas and the Gaza health ministry handled their account of an explosion on October 17th at the Ahli Arab hospital, which killed many civilians. Hamas said that an Israeli air strike had hit the hospital. Within an hour, a ministry spokesperson said there were at least 500 victims of the strike, an improbably short window to collect and publish reliable data on the dead and injured. It later said that 471 people had been killed. The cause of the blast is uncertain, but analysis by Western intelligence agencies suggests that an errant rocket fired by Islamic Jihad, another militant group in Gaza, probably hit the hospital. Photos of the car park, where the blast occurred, show extensive fire damage, but do not suggest the sort of large explosion that would cause greater structural damage around the point of impact. Western intelligence agencies suggested, without providing much evidence, that the death toll may have been 50-90% lower than the health ministry had claimed.

Yet there are good reasons to trust the casualty figures coming out of Gaza. One is that the health ministry’s figures from previous conflicts have been reliable, according to the UN and human-rights organisations, which have scrutinised them, and come up with their own estimates. “When we, and the UN, have done our own verification in the past, numbers have generally been consistent,” says Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch. America’s State Department was using Gazan health-ministry data only a few hours before Mr Biden said he did not trust the figures. There is no evidence that the ministry has changed its methodology. A spokesperson for the UN said they would “continue to include [the Gaza health ministry’s] data in our reporting” as it is “clearly sourced”.

Cumulative deaths reported by each side*

To Sunday October 29th

  • Palestinian, reported by Gaza
    Ministry of Health

  • Israeli, reported by Israel

7 9 11 13 15 17 19 21 23 25 27 29

0 2,000 4,000 6,000 8,000 10,000

1,400 8,120


On October 26th, after Mr Biden questioned the Gaza death toll, the health ministry released a list of 7,028 people who had been killed since October 7th, including 2,913 children. This list counts the bodies that arrive at Gaza’s hospitals, recording their names, official ID numbers, age and sex. The health ministry says it enters these data into a computerised “hospital information system”, which is transferred daily to a “central martyrs’ registry database” and published in periodic data releases from the ministry. The database does not record whether the victims were militants or civilians. Its numbers do not include people who may lie under rubble or those who were buried by their families and not brought to hospitals. Nor do they include deaths from lack of access to hospital care or from stress caused by the fighting. So they probably underestimate the death toll. The identities of those named in the report can be verified: Israel controls the Palestinian population register, and has detailed information on every Palestinian living in Gaza.

The high death toll should be no surprise. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said that it had carried out 6,000 air strikes within six days of the attack on October 7th. That is the same number of strikes as it carried during the entire 50-day war with Gaza in 2014, which killed more than 2,200 Palestinians. Sceptics of Gaza’s official death-toll figures, including the White House, do not deny that thousands of Palestinians are being killed. Hamas must have known that murdering more than so many Israelis—most of them civilians—would have provoked a massive response by Israel and another war in Gaza. That does not mean the authorities in Gaza are wildly exaggerating the human toll of that response.

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