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Western media is constantly reporting casualty figures from the Gaza ministry of health. However the ministry is fully controlled by Hamas and cannot be considered impartial. So why are the casualty numbers taken at face value rather than being questioned?

I understand why non-Western media happily reports Hamas-sourced numbers but Western media likewise seems to trust the "health ministry".

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    Not sure what this question is aiming at. Hopefully the reports make clear that these are only claims. The true number of casualties could be different. But you still have to report the claims. Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 6:26
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    Citation for the claim that they're constantly taken at face value? There seems plenty of evidence that they are not. Otherwise this should be closed as based on a false premise.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 11:55
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    Where have you heard, read or seen such statements taken without salt? I haven't… Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 0:29

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First of all, I think "taken without a grain of salt" is exaggerating the confidence with which those numbers are reported. Usually, reliable media seems to point out that the numbers have not been independently verified. "Trustworthy enough that that the numbers are worth reporting rather than ignoring" would probably fit better.

When it comes to the question of whether it is better to report only somewhat trustworthy data rather than nothing at all, it is important to note that just as over-reporting inflated casualty numbers might lead to oversized outrage, not reporting on casualties can lead to unjustified apathy. Journalists have to find a balancing act here.

When it comes to the specifics of the situation, the Guardian article linked by James K in the comments addressed them:

  1. This is not the first time that the Gaza Health Ministry is reporting casualty figures from Israeli attacks, and in the past there has been no evidence of clear data fabrication from their side.
  2. They report detailed casualty lists with names, etc., rather than just total numbers. If they either invented people or claimed living people to be dead, they'd likely be found out (connected back to Item 1). Relatedly (and not from the article): The casualty lists are communicated to the Gazan people just as much as to foreign reporters, which drastically impacts the incentive-calculus for lying.
  3. To the limited extent that third-party information is available, it seems to be consistent with those reports.
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    OTOH Hamas may be more incentivized to exaggerate this time skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/56206/… Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 23:33
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    We have clear evidence of over-reporting from just a month ago. When Hamas still accused Israel of bombing the Al-Ahli hospital, they reported 471 dead, while at the time the operators of the hospital said 200, the director said 250, US intel sources said 100-300. With hindsight, the NYT now estimates the number at 100 and says Hamas has "deliberately disseminated misleading information". Hamas inflated the numbers by a factor of almost 5.
    – tim
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 7:30
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    Based on the daily reports, I also assume that the hospital bombing is still a part of the Hamas-reported numbers (despite the numbers being 5x too high & the fact that it was PIJ who bombed the hospital). As far as the list of names goes, the WP acknowledges that it can't verify those. They are essentially meaningless.
    – tim
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 7:42
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    @tim Israel also down-adjusted the casualty numbers for the Hamas attacks. Over-reporting may be intentional, but doesn't have to be.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 9:34
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    @gerrit they did, after further investigations has revealed that around 200 unidentified casualties are now believed to be Hamas fighters. They didn't initially over-estimate by a factor of 5 & corrected based on new info. Did Hamas correct their numbers after they were shown to be false (or as the NYT puts it "deliberately disseminated misleading information")?
    – tim
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 9:39
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While Hamas may or may not be exaggerating, news agencies like the BBC and organizations like the UN also report on casualties affecting their personnel and affiliates, as well as those people's families and it doesn't look all that great there either.

UN is at 101 KIA from its staff so far.

From the hustle and bustle of New York City to the edge of the Karura Forest in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, offices across the global UN system paid tribute on Monday to the 101 staff killed so far during the war raging in Gaza – the largest loss during a conflict in the Organization’s 78-year history.

UN has 10K staff in Gaza so that's a 1% death rate.

The number of area staff range from nearly 3,000 in the Lebanon Field Office to over 10,000 in the Gaza Field Office with the other three Field Offices falling in between those numbers.

So 10K civilian dead out of 2M is not unbelievable. The UN staff may be more exposed, staying to help near combat areas, than civilians in "safe zones". But UN working staff should also be in clearly marked vehicles and buildings.

These stats falls very much in the general ballpark figure where Hamas numbers aren't automatically suspiciously high, no matter the wishful thinking to claim it so at least in the absence of additional information.

Still, I would very much also reason about these numbers on the basis of Arno's answer - take them with caution and keep in mind who issued them.

Quoting the Guardian's article cited in a comment, there is probably one area of contention: who gets counted as civilians vs Hamas in the casualties. Even then they cautioned against too much doubt.

Shakir said a grey area was differentiating combatants from civilians among the dead, but the large proportion of women and children killed was indicative of high civilian casualties.

One last thing to keep in mind when reasoning about casualties wrt children: Gaza has a very unusual age pyramid going on and nearly half of the population is under 18. So their proportions in the overall casualties are going to be different from what you'd expect from a war like that in Ukraine which has proportionally much fewer children. Make of that what you will, but it is a relevant data point.

Nearly half (47.3%) are under 18.

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    UN also runs lotsa stuff in Gaza where they shouldn't be exposed, like schools. A lot of those have been turned into shelters these days. bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-67391335 Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 4:12
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    According to vaticannews.va/en/world/news/2023-10/… the majority of UN staff killed were "teachers and educators". Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 4:22
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    One piece of contention is that the groups "children" (anyone under 18) and "Hamas fighters" overlap, as Hamas reportedly recruit minors. Then there is the archetypical Palestinian teenager throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. Are those fighters or civilians? The distinction is not clear.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 8:26
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    @gerrit Yes, that's the kind of thing that I would be somewhat more skeptical about - who the Health Ministry counts in which bucket. But it's not necessarily all that likely to change the overall numbers - what this Q was about - all that much. And... the archetypical Palestinian teenager throwing rocks shouldn't be ending up in a morgue, if that's all he's done: he's not a fighter. Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 17:40
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica We've obviously got different definitions of what constitutes fighting during a war ....
    – deep64blue
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 15:20
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Why news media report the numbers

The Washington Post has an article explaining why they - and others - rely on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health numbers[*].

Their main points are:

  • everyone does it ("Everyone uses the figures")
  • there are no other numbers
  • they believe that historically, the numbers have been accurate ("Many experts consider figures provided by the ministry reliable, given its access, sources and accuracy in past statements")
  • Hamas provides a list of names

They also acknowledge that:

  • They can't actually "independently verify the names"
  • Hamas does "not differentiate between combatants and civilians"
  • While not mentioned by the WP, Hamas also does not differentiate how the people died. The list includes victims of misfired rockts as victims of "Israeli aggression".

They do not acknowledge that Hamas is a terrorist organization with the goal to destroy Israel and kill all Jews. Instead they are calling it a "militant group". This gives some insight into why organizations are reporting these numbers: They don't see Hamas as the extremist group that it is.

Are the numbers accurate?

The WP does acknowledge that "accounts sometimes differ". The example they give is the al-Ahli Hospital bombing. According to the WP, Hamas gave casualty numbers as 471 & the US puts them at 100-300.

In fact, it's not just the US that has different numbers. At the time, the Anglican diocese that manages the hospital put it at 200, the director of the hospital at 250. In hindsight, the NYT concluded that the number was closer to 100 and said that Hamas has "deliberately disseminated misleading information to the international community".

That's putting aside that the hospital wasn't actually bombed by Israel, but by a misfired rocket from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

So we know that Hamas inflates their numbers (in this case by a factor of almost 5). Media still use them as there are no other numbers and they believe that Hamas numbers are accurate.

How the numbers are reported

I've looked at headlines re casualties supposedly reaching 10,000 to see if news organizations are indeed reporting the numbers without a grain of salt.

We can see that only CNN acknowledges in the headline that the numbers ultimately come from Hamas. Some news org report the numbers as if they were facts in their headlines (reuters, al jazeera, NPR, bloomberg), while others qualify them (attributing the numbers to the health ministry). Most give the source in the article itself, though many don't mention Hamas.

[*] I shortened "Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health" to "Hamas" in the rest of my answer.

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  • +1 Not to say it wouldn't bear repeating, but the news is generally written with the expectation that the reader knows that Hamas is running Gaza. So the "Health Ministry" would "Hamas' Health Ministry", implicitly. Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 21:13
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    "While not mentioned by the WP, Hamas also does not differentiate how the people died." - which applies not only to misfires of their own rockets, but also to natural causes. Gaza has 2.3 mio. inhabitants. Life expectancy at birth (CIA World Fact Book) is 75 years in Gaza (which seems weird given how bad conditions are said to be, but ok) so death rates should be about 1.333%, i.e. 30,667 per year or 2,556 per month. So as an approximation, about 3000 people would've died by themselves from Oct 7th to today. If Hamas includes that number, 10,000 are actually 7,000.
    – Tom
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 12:07
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    'While not mentioned by the WP, Hamas also does not differentiate how the people died. The list includes victims of misfired rockts as victims of "Israeli aggression".' This wouldn't change the number of deads, and it's common everywhere else; for example, it is certain that some of the victims of the 7/10 attack were due to friendly fire by IDF forces, either because of stray bullets or just being mistaken for enemies, but they will be (rightly) counted as victims of Hamas even if it was an israeli bullet which killed them.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 13:02
  • @Rekesoft I do not think that it is right to attribute civilians killed by Hamas or PIJ terror to "Israeli aggression". That's not the same as friendly fire in a defensive action. The dimensions are also different, see the 471 - according to Hamas (actually closer to 100) - victims of the al ahli bombing.
    – tim
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 13:56
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    @tim In the Iraq war there were some instances of US aircraft blowing up US and British tanks, just like the war in Ukraine has seen an Ukrainian BUK blowing up a residential building in Kiev. A rocket which misfires and kills your own people is a basic definition of friendly fire.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 14:35
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The Ministry of Health has historically be reasonably accurate with its figures. And when they are backup up by UN figures or those from other NGOs, the burden shifts to demonstrating why they shouldn't be believed.

With that in mind, I often see the opposite stance - immediately retorting with "how can we believe Gaza MoH" figures as an virtual get out of jail free card for what we know is Israel's very broadly targeted bombing campaign of a densely populated area of civilians. Is its MoD not partial too? Independent figures are our best chance of understanding the situation, which means allowing journalists, calling internet access and protecting NGO offices in Gaza.

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Statistical studies
There are several statistical studies, presenting conflicting opinions about the reliability of the data provided by the Gaza Health Ministry.

One of the earliest ones, published in respected British medical journal The Lancet on December 6, 2023, suggested that the Gaza Ministry of Health (MoH) numbers looked credible:

Using publicly available information, we compared the Gaza MoH's mortality reports with a separate source of mortality reporting and found no evidence of inflated rates. We conducted a temporal analysis of cumulative-reported mortality within Gaza for deaths of Gazans as reported by the MoH and reported staff member deaths from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), from Oct 7 to Nov 10, 2023. These two data sources used independent methods of mortality verification, enabling assessment of reporting consistency.

A more recent statistical study, published by Tablet in the beginning of March 2024, points out significant incoherences in the data reported by Gaza MoH: like steady linear growth of casualties, inconsistencies between the numbers of children vs. the number of women killed or the number of women vs. the number of men killed:
enter image description here

Washington Institute for Near East Policy suggests that the data are unreliable and inconsistently reported by the media (even contrary to the MoH official data):
enter image description here
(Here central collection system refers to MoH.)

There are also disputed claims about the partition of casualties into men/women/childrenn or combatants/civilians:

A recent Israeli study claimed that 61% of the casualties in Gaza were civilians. Is that plausible?

The Gaza Ministry of Health numbers do not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths or injuries. That leaves scholars, human rights organizations, and the news media looking for ways to estimate civilian and combatant deaths – emphasis on the word “estimate.” The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study estimated that at least 68.1% of the deaths in Gaza have been noncombatants. And a study by Israeli sociologist Yagil Levy that was published in Haaretz estimated the civilian death toll at 61%. Both studies get to that number in mostly the same way; they use the Gaza Ministry of Health data from October 7 to 26. Both studies place children (those younger than 18), adult women (ages 18-59), and the elderly (those 60 and over) into a “noncombatant” category (the Lancet correspondence calls them “groups that probably include few combatants”). Levy discusses men (ages 18-59) as adults who he did not include in the noncombatant category; the study in the Lancet is more vague, with the unstated implication being that adult men (those not in “groups that probably include few combatants”) may constitute “potential” combatants.

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    Related to the 2nd/Tablet claims skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/56791/… Commented Apr 7 at 7:09
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    Your summary of the 3rd study/graph is also pretty bad. What the graph you've included shows is that over time Hamas [Ministry of Health] relied more on 'media reports' from the North than a true accounting there, because they lost control on the ground. The graph itself isn't showing any inconsistency, just relaying that fact. The rest of that study claims that the 'media reports' are inaccurate, and shouldn't be trusted, i.e. that the centralized method of MOH used initially was the most reliable bit. Commented Apr 7 at 7:38

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