AP Analysis Finds Flaws in Gaza Health Ministry’s Numbers

Report claims the Ministry has inflated the percentage of women and children killed during the war.
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 analysis of the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry’s count of deaths in the Gaza war that found flaws and inconsistencies in the ministry’s numbers following an examination of the data.

The AP reviewed the ministry’s death tolls released in October, January, March and April and found that they were “provided without supporting data. And as recently as March, the ministry’s daily reports claimed that 72% of the dead were women and children, even as underlying data clearly showed the percentage was well below that.” Further, the AP reported that “the 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.” The latest figures from the ministry showed that “women and children made up 38% of the newly and fully identified deaths” in April, per the AP.

The AP claimed to have discovered “flaws in the Palestinian record keeping.” As Gaza’s hospital system collapsed in December and January, “the ministry began relying on hard-to-verify ‘media reports’ to register new deaths,” the AP reported. “Its March report included 531 individuals who were counted twice, and many deaths were self-reported by families, instead of health officials.” The AP also noted that the ministry’s numbers don’t mention the number of Hamas terrorists that have been killed during the war. The outlet did acknowledge that “the 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’s 36 hospitals, closing morgues and hampering the work of facilities still functioning.”

Abraham Wyner, a professor of statistics and data science at The Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania who penned a March 6 piece in Tablet alleging that the Gaza Health Ministry was fabricating the numbers, told The Journal in a phone interview that the AP is “reporting things that I think are mostly true.” “The number of women and children [civilian casualties] has never been as high as Hamas has claimed,” he said. “They 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’ve been reporting these numbers with great accuracy and now they’re saying, ‘oh we really don’t have evidence to back up that number,’ which is essentially testifying that they’ve been making it up.” Wyner also contended that the 50% figure is still “too high.”

The AP report seems to suggest that the decline in women and children deaths is due to a change in the Israel Defense Force’s tactics. “After marching across most of Gaza and saying it had achieved many key objectives, Israel then began withdrawing most of its ground forces,” the AP analysis stated. “It 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 —  and with seemingly fewer civilians caught in the crossfire.”

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

“It’s not so much Israel’s tactics that have changed. The population in Gaza has responded to Israel’s tactics a little differently,” the Wharton professor argued. “I 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’t leave … I think now people have left.” Wyner pointed to how Israel recently managed to evacuate “almost a million civilians out of Rafah. The fighting doesn’t have civilians right in front of people’s paths anymore.”

The AP did feature quotes from those who defend the Gaza Health Ministry’s 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 “increasingly flawed,” it doesn’t “necessarily change the overall picture” 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’s numbers as credible because of the ministry’s access to hospitals and morgues; Shakir argued that the ministry’s death tolls may be undercounting the total dead due to bodies being buried under rubble. Dr. Moatasem Salah, who directs the Gaza Health Ministry’s emergency center, told the AP that those accusing the ministry of cooking the books are showing “disrespect to the humanity for any person who exists here” and doubled down on the figure that 70% of those killed have been women and children. The AP paraphrased Salah’s claim that “the 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.”

Wyner called the “undercounting” argument “a talking point, not a reality,” claiming to have heard from an Israeli military briefing that “because of the hostages, they’re actually investigating the rubble and doing their best to pull bodies to make sure there aren’t Israelis in there.”

He also claimed there is “circular” sourcing with the numbers. “The U.N. will say a number comes from Gaza, and Gaza will say it comes from the U.N. … It’s circular.”

The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, has previously published two articles that claimed the Gaza Health Ministry’s numbers are credible. Wyner criticized the authors of those articles as being “partisan” and contended that The Lancet articles “didn’t actually investigate the data fully.” “They almost were like, ‘we want to accept this data so let’s look at things in it we think look right,’ as opposed to looking at the data to find things that look wrong, which is the actual scientific method,” Wyner said.

Wyner did acknowledge that it “is impossible to ascertain” the true death toll in the war, as it will “be months before we have a correct accounting.”

Commentary Magazine Senior Editor Seth Mandel declared it is “a major media scandal” that mainstream media outlets uncritically reported on the Gaza Health Ministry’s numbers. “I don’t have much faith that it’ll be treated as such,” he wrote, noting that “the AP and others had to revise numbers in a story about an Israeli strike on a Hamas command center in a building that was once used as a school.” The editor’s 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 “had counted the bodies but was unable to look beneath the shrouds.”

“Hamas showed reporters shrouds and told them what was in them, and the reporters dutifully repeated what they were told,” Mandel added. “That’s the process for a story like this. And it turned out while Hamas wouldn’t 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 identifiable terrorists.”

David Adesnik, senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, said in a statement, “For 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’s hope this marks a turning point, where all those organizations begin to examine how their efforts validated Hamas propaganda.”

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