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Is Gaza’s Health Ministry Trustworthy?

FILE - People inspect the damage at Ahli Arab Hospital in central Gaza on Oct. 18, 2023, following a blast that ripped through it a day earlier. The U.S. and Israel have cast doubt on the veracity of the death tolls being reported by the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health.
FILE - People inspect the damage at Ahli Arab Hospital in central Gaza on Oct. 18, 2023, following a blast that ripped through it a day earlier. The U.S. and Israel have cast doubt on the veracity of the death tolls being reported by the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health.

Last week, President Joe Biden told reporters he had “no confidence” in how the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip has calculated the mounting death toll. He gave no explanation as to why he believes the ministry is unreliable.

The Health Ministry replied to Biden on October 27, publishing a 212-page report listing the name, age, sex and ID numbers of 6,747 dead Palestinians, blaming the massive casualties entirely on Israeli military “aggression.”

When the list was released, the ministry said the number of dead was even greater than it had reported, with nearly 300 slain Palestinians then unidentified.

Now, according to the ministry, at least 8,306 Palestinians have died in Israel’s counteroffensive since war broke out in the Gaza Strip, following Hamas’ October 7 invasion of southern Israel in which about 1,400 Israelis were slaughtered.

The ministry’s current numbers include 471 reported deaths from a blast at the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City two weeks ago.

Palestinian politicians said an Israeli missile destroyed the hospital, but the latest intelligence out of Israel and the United States points to a misfired rocket out of Gaza. Nevertheless, the ministry holds Israel responsible in its official tabulation.

Days ago, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby described the ministry as “a front for Hamas,” a U.S. designated terrorist group.

While all official communications coming out of the Gaza Strip are strictly regulated by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank technically oversees the ministry, paying workers and sending medical equipment to Gaza hospitals.

But the ministry’s independence has been questioned by Kirby and many independent analysts, who think the death toll at the hospital has been exaggerated based on factors such as the size of the crater left by the explosion and the number of people thought to have been inside at the time of the disaster.

The White House may doubt the figures coming out of Gaza’s Health Ministry, but for the most part, human rights groups and politicians in the region outside of Israel think otherwise.

How Gaza collects its numbers

The Palestinian Authority has described its data collection process to the media over the years. A spokesman recently told Reuters that casualties are recorded based on direct reporting from hospitals, ambulances and first responders in Gaza. The Red Crescent, he said, also helps.

Those slain and wounded, the spokesman said, are at first categorized by age, sex and severity of injury. The individuals are identified by name later on. Officials in Gaza then forward the information to Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority updates its records.

The spokesman noted occasional inconsistencies in the data but said it is generally reliable.

What medical professionals and watchdogs say

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nongovernmental organization, said that the ministry’s figures are fairly accurate and that it has not found significant errors when it investigated Gazan casualties in the past.

In the aftermath of the contested hospital blast, Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program, affirmed his trust in the ministry’s reporting at a virtual press conference.

“We believe that the numbers being reported in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories … may not be perfectly accurate on a minute-to-minute basis,” Ryan said, “but they grossly reflect the level of death and injury on both sides of that conflict.”

Israel and the PA’s positions on the ministry

Last week, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman made the accusation that Gaza’s Health Ministry “continuously inflates the number of civilian casualties.”

He said the ministry “has been caught lying in the past,” observing that officials in Gaza initially claimed that 500 had died in the Ahli Arab Hospital blast before lowering that number to 471.

Gazan officials have admitted that counting the deceased was hard given that some of those who perished in the hospital had been dismembered. Naming an exact death toll based on body parts, especially without the benefit of time and forensic tools, is not an exact science.

Shortly after the explosion, U.S. intelligence said the number of those who died in the hospital was “probably at the low end of the 100 to 300 spectrum.”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh hit back against the U.S. in an interview with Al Jazeera last Thursday, referring indirectly to Biden and other detractors.

“There are certain leaders who don’t want to see reality,” he said. “The numbers are correct. They are our numbers. These numbers are fed to us from the hospitals of Gaza every single day that are received by our Ministry of Health.”