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The U.N. and the Media Are Both Getting Casualty Counts in Gaza Wrong

The U.N. and the Media Are Both Getting Casualty Counts in Gaza Wrong
A Palestinian man pulls a hand truck amid the debris of buildings that were destroyed by Israeli bombardments, in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip, April 21, 2024 (Sipa photo by Ramez Habboub via AP Images).

Last week, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, came under scrutiny for revising the demographic breakdown in its casualty figures for the Gaza conflict. Between May 6 and May 8, it updated its numbers to reflect those being reported from the Health Ministry in Gaza, whereas its earlier reports were drawn from the Gaza Media Office. The key difference in the tallies was the lower number of dead women and children: The Media Office was reporting unknown deaths as women and children, and the Health Ministry reported them as unknown. Still, OCHA was criticized for the switch: In an article in the Atlantic entitled “The UN Gaza Statistics Make No Sense,” Graeme Wood wrote, “One could be forgiven for wondering whether the UN had raised about 6,700 Gazan children and 4,500 Gazan women from the dead.”

The idea that an adjusted death estimate based on a more reliable source is a sign of malfeasance is based on important misperceptions about how civilian casualty counting works in practice. In reality, adjusting the count down as more evidence comes to light is a sign of a reliable curator of numbers, not the reverse. But this incident highlights two important facts about civilian casualty counting in conflict zones that are little understood by the public and the media: Counting bodies is not a reliable way of estimating death rates, and gender breakdowns don’t actually matter in determining civilian deaths. Both of these points are getting lost in the coverage of the numbers debate, and OCHA’s biggest mistake may have been failing to educate observers and journalists on these facts in its haste to relay available demographic numbers.

First, the most accurate casualty estimates don’t actually come from unerringly counting bodies. That is because any count of bodies is always imprecise. Numerous victims are always missing or unaccounted for in wars. Not all bodies end up at the hospitals or morgues. Others do, but get misidentified. Patrick Ball, a statistician at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, told me that no matter who is producing the Gaza body counts, they’re likely to be inaccurate in all the usual ways. “Some people reported as dead will turn up, alive, later,” he explained. “And the bodies of some people who are not now reported dead will turn up when the rubble is cleared. Both are inevitable, so precise counts right now are implausible.”

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