GAZA WARUN Halves Its Estimate of Women and Children Killed in Gaza

By Elliott Abrams

Published 13 May 2024

Between May 6 and May 8, the UN cut in half its estimates of the number of women and children killed in Gaza. The estimates were based on Hamas numbers and are a reminder that all fatality estimates coming from that source are unreliable.

From the beginning of the Gaza war on October 7th, almost every statement about Palestinian fatalities has been based on Hamas numbers. The “Gaza Ministry of Health” or the “Government Media Office” are the usual sources, as if those words meant anything other than Hamas.

The UN claimed 23,084 dead by January 7. On February 29, NPR said more than 30,000 had been killed. Wikipedia says “As of May 8….over 34,2623 have been killed, 70% of them are  women and minors.” Time Magazine carried an article by a professor at the Columbia University School of Public Health on March 15 that claimed more than 30,000 were dead and said “Actually, the numbers are likely conservative. The science is extremely clear.” President Biden has used the 30,0000 figure himself, in his State of the Union speech.

It has become increasingly clear that these numbers represent Hamas propaganda. The best analysis was done by Prof. Abraham Wyner of the Wharton School at Penn, in an article in Tablet Magazine. He demonstrates conclusively that “The numbers are not real. That much is obvious to anyone who understands how naturally occurring numbers work. The casualties are not overwhelmingly women and children….”

But all of a sudden the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Activities (OCHA), revised its figures. The Jerusalem Post reported the story on May 11:

On May 6, the UN published data showing that 34,735 people had reportedly been killed in Gaza, including over 9,500 women and over 14,500 children. On May 8, the UN published data showing 34,844 people had reportedly been killed, including 4,959 women and 7,797 children.

OCHA did not explain its actions but the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies did:

The UN attributed its original, higher figures to the Hamas-controlled Government Media Office (GMO) in Gaza, whose figures OCHA has cited continually for the past two months. The UN gave no source for the lower figures in its May 8 update, but the figures precisely match those in a May 2 report from a different Hamas-controlled organization, the Gaza Ministry of Health.

As David Adesnik of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies noted, “This change may signal that the UN has finally recognized the lack of evidence behind Hamas’s original claims that more than 14,000 children and 9,000 women have been killed in Gaza. If so, the UN should state clearly that it has lost confidence in sources whose credibility it has affirmed for months.” But of course, who is to say that the new and lower numbers from Hamas are credible? And why accept the totals of over 34,000, when Hamas has acknowledged that it cannot identify and provide names for 10,000 of those? 

The Hamas figures are not credible, and if OCHA has finally recognized this it is a positive step. But it ought to be acknowledged openly, not slipped into a longer report. OCHA is still using Hamas figures (ie, those of the Gaza Ministry of Health) in giving total numbers for those killed, and should reflect on whether those numbers are any more reliable when they emerge from the same source: Hamas.

It is obvious that this war is a calamity for Gaza civilians and that thousands are dead and more are wounded. Hamas planned the war this way, placing its military resources in homes, schools, mosques, and hospitals and thus ensuring that once it started a war civilians would suffer greatly. Its gigantic tunnel network is meant to protect its fighters, not one single civilian. And civilian suffering, including homelessness, is very great.

Hamas wants the world to believe that the main casualties and fatalities have been women and children, an argument almost universally accepted until very recently. Now even the UN, or one part of the UN, silently acknowledges that it blindly accepted Hamas numbers meant to mislead. Others who accepted the Hamas propaganda should do likewise, and all have an obligation to come clean—not least the media in the United States and elsewhere.

I await the stories in The New York TimesWashington Post, and NPR reporting on this, but the wait may be a long one.

Elliott Abrams is Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at CFRThis article is published courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).