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Why the UN changed its death tolls of Palestinian women and children killed in Gaza

The United Nations is facing scrutiny after lowering its counts of Palestinian women and children killed since Israel began bombing Gaza in its seven-month war against Hamas.

Women, children still account for more than half of identified victims after UN agency revises figures

A woman with a black scarf over her head and wearing a denim jacket holds a child, shrouded in a small with body bag, in her arms.

The United Nations is facing scrutiny after lowering its counts of Palestinian women and children killed since Israel began bombing Gaza in its seven-month war against Hamas.

The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which releases impact reports on the situation in Israel and Gaza every two to three days, revised its tallies last week to show that approximately 5,000 women and 7,800 children have been killed as of April 30.

Those numbers are under half what the agency had previously reported.

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson for UN Secretary General António Guterres, said last week the UN is consistently revising and cross-checking its figures — which it obtains from Gaza's Ministry of Health, the Gaza Media Office and other sources — but blamed the "fog of war" for the difficulty in being able to ascertain accurate death tolls.

Israeli officials and others have criticized the UN for relying on statistics from Gaza's government, which has been run by Hamas since the group took control of the territory in 2007, and for using figures that don't differentiate between Palestinian civilians and combatants. However, the UN attests the death tolls are not only accurate — but likely higher.

Here's what the UN has said about the deaths of Palestinian women and children and how the numbers break down.

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What exactly changed?

The overall number of Palestinians killed hasn't changed, but from the end of March until last week, OCHA reported the deaths of at least 9,500 women and 14,500 children.

Its Friday update said that as of May 9, there were 34,904 reported fatalities in Gaza since Oct. 7, the day Hamas-led militants attacked Israel. Soon after, the Israeli military began bombarding the territory with airstrikes. It launched a ground operation in the weeks that followed.

That number, OCHA stated, does not include about 10,000 people reported missing or believed to be buried in the rubble of the more than 370,000 homes that Israeli bombs have damaged or destroyed in the past seven months.

The breakdown of the casualties, however, only includes 24,686 identified fatalities as of April 30.

From that figure, OCHA has recorded 10,006 were Palestinian men, accounting for 40 per cent of the identified fatalities, while 4,959 (20 per cent) were women and 7,797 were children (32 per cent). It also listed 1,924 elderly people among the fatalities, but did not differentiate them by gender.

Two graphics, side by side, both with the title "Reported Casualties." The graphic on the right shows that there were 34,904 Palestinian fatalities in Gaza as of May 9, 2024. Below that number, the information details that the reported fatalities include 24,686 identified victims as of April 30 and that 10,006 were men (or 40 per cent), 4,959 (20 per cent) were women, 7,797 (32 per cent) were children and 1,924 (8 per cent) were elderly. The graphic on the right shows the that there were 34,734 Palestinian fatalities in Gaza as of May 6, 2024. Below that number, the information details that the reported fatalities include >9,500 women and >14,500 children.

"There's about another 10,000-plus bodies who still have to be fully identified," Haq told reporters in New York on Monday. "And so then the details of those — which of those are children, which of those are women — that will be re-established once the full identification process is complete."

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Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, says new figures from the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza now reflect a breakdown of the 24,686 deaths of 'people who have been fully identified' — though he noted more than 10,000 bodies have yet to be fully identified — and addressed the change in number of women and children reported killed in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Has Israel's death toll for Oct. 7 changed?

OCHA also lists the number of reported fatalities in the Oct. 7 attack — figures that come from Israeli authorities and that have also fluctuated since the immediate aftermath — as well as the number of Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza.

In its most recent report, OCHA said there were approximately 1,200 fatalities in Israel on Oct. 7. That includes civilians, foreign nationals and hundreds of Israeli soldiers and security forces. Of those, 1,162 have been identified, including at least 33 children.

In the agency's earliest reports following the attacks, the initial number of OCHA-reported Israeli deaths, based on government data, was at least 1,400.

A month later, the Israeli government lowered its death toll by 200, saying that the revision was the result of unidentified bodies that may have been Palestinian militants from Gaza, not civilians. The Israeli military is also investigating a number of possible friendly fire deaths from that day.

OCHA has also recorded 266Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza since Oct. 7.

At least 43 were killed in friendly fire incidents or accidents, as of the end of last month, according to the Times of Israel, citing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Israel has also reported that 132 hostages, out of around 250 kidnapped on Oct. 7, remain in Gaza, but at least 38 of them have been declared dead. At least three hostages were killed by IDF fire in what the military called a case of mistaken identity.

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What do the UN's critics say?

Israel and critics of the UN have seized on the revised death counts.

On Monday, Oren Marmorstein, spokesperson for Israel's foreign affairs ministry, accused Hamas of manipulating the numbers: "They are not accurate and they do not reflect the reality on the ground," he said.

"The parroting of Hamas's propaganda messages without the use of any verification process has proven time and again to be methodologically flawed and unprofessional," he said in a social media post.

The office of Ambassador Mona Abuamara, chief representative of the Palestinian general delegation to Canada, did not respond to CBC's request for comment in time for publication.

Abraham Wyner, a statistics and data science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has been analyzing the number of deaths in Gaza since the beginning of this year. He has long believed the UN's figures, relying on Hamas-provided data, were inaccurate, and that they have been used to make Israel look like it's committing war crimes.

"People have accepted it without carefully examining it," Wyner told Canada Tonight host Travis Dhanraj.

He said numbers shouldn't be reported "until the battles are over" — especially considering their source.

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Abraham Wyner, a professor of statistics and data science at the University of Pennsylvania, says the United Nations' recent change in its breakdown of deaths in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas war by men, women and children — which it gets from officials in Hamas-run Gaza — shows that the UN's reporting 'has always been incorrect' and 'people have accepted it without carefully examining it.'

The UN says it has no other option,whether or not its critics agree.

"United Nations teams in Gaza are unable to independently verify these figures, given the prevailing situation on the ground and the sheer number of fatalities," Eri Kaneko, an OCHA spokesperson, said in an email to CBC News.

She confirmed that the state of many of the bodies makes it difficult to identify them.

A bulldozer piles dirt on top of a row of blue body bags in a mass grave as people stand alongside watching.


Other UN officials also defended the data provided by Gaza's Ministry of Health.

"Unfortunately, we have the sad experience of co-ordinating with the Ministry of Health on casualty figures every few years for large mass casualty incidents in Gaza, and in past times, their figures have proven to be generally accurate," Haq said.

The World Health Organization "can attest that MoH has good capacity in data collection/analysis and its previous reporting has been considered credible," said WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris.

"Real numbers could be even higher," she said.

LISTEN | What would it take for Israel to agree to a ceasefire with Hamas:

Front Burner22:36Israel rejects ceasefire deal, pushes into Gaza’s last refuge

There were scenes of celebration in Gaza last Monday, as word spread that Hamas had accepted the terms of an Egyptian-Qatari ceasefire proposal.But the same day, Israel rejected the deal. Its military has since ordered more evacuations and pushed further into Rafah, considered a last refuge for over 1 million Gazans displaced by the war. So what would it take for Israel to agree to a ceasefire? If it wants the safety of hostages, why didn’t it take a deal to release them? And what could the human cost of this last push for Israel’s “total victory” be? Julian Borger is the Guardian's world affairs editor.For transcripts of Front Burner, please visit: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/frontburner/transcripts [https://www.cbc.ca/radio/frontburner/transcripts]Transcripts of each episode will be made available by the next workday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Logan

Senior Writer

Nick Logan is a senior writer with CBCNews.ca based in Vancouver. He has worked as a multi-platform reporter and producer for more than a decade, with a particular focus on international news. You can reach out to him at nick.logan@cbc.ca.

    With files from Travis Dhanraj and Reuters

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