Why the U.N. revised the numbers of women and children killed in Gaza

By Aya Batrawy
A woman mourns as she carries the shrouded body of a child killed following overnight Israeli strikes on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 6. AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel — The United Nations says it revised down its tally of women and children killed over the past seven months in the Gaza Strip as the Health Ministry in the territory confirms most, but not all, the identities of the casualties.

Despite its revision based on identified deaths, the U.N. maintains that the Gaza Health Ministry’s overall death toll of more than 35,000 people killed in the ongoing Israeli military offensive in Gaza is reliable.

Here’s a closer look at the figures:

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The U.N. humanitarian agency, citing Gaza’s Health Ministry, says 7,797 children and 4,959 women were killed in Gaza as of April 30.

Those figures, however, only account for 70% of deaths fully identified.

The U.N. says Gaza’s Health Ministry has been able to fully identify 24,686 deaths out of more than 35,000 people the ministry says have been killed in the Gaza Strip.

U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq says Gaza’s Health Ministry is still working to fully identify 10,000 or more deaths. Based on the identities confirmed so far, though, the U.N. now says about 52% of those killed have been women and children.

The Health Ministry’s overall death toll of more than 35,000 spans the past seven months of the war that began Oct. 7, when Hamas launched an assault on southern Israel, killing 1,200 people there and taking around 250 hostages, according to Israeli authorities.

The Health Ministry in Gaza has struggled to keep an up-to-date electronic database with the name, age, gender and ID number of each person killed in the war due to the scale of deaths and because most hospitals in the Gaza Strip have collapsed and stopped functioning.

Haq, who is the deputy spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general, was asked in a briefing Monday about media reports, one of which was shared by Israel’s foreign minister, that said the U.N. had halved the number of women and children it had been saying were killed in Gaza.

“It’s not quite the case,” Haq said. “The overall number of fatalities that has been tallied by the Ministry of Health in Gaza, which is our counterpart on dealing with the death tolls, that number remains unchanged,” he said, reiterating the figure stands at more than 35,000.

What has changed, he explained, is that the U.N. is now only quoting figures for the number of women and children killed based on those who have been fully identified by the Health Ministry.

“What’s changed is the Ministry of Health in Gaza has updated the breakdown of fatalities for whom full details have been documented,” he says.

The breakdown of fully documented Gaza Health Ministry records

Based on the 70% of deaths fully identified by the Gaza Health Ministry, the U.N. says 52% of those killed in Gaza are women and children; around 40% — or 10,000 — are men. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and militants killed. More than 1,900 people killed are classified as elderly.

The U.N. says while it cannot independently verify each death due to the sheer scale and continued fighting, figures provided by Gaza’s Health Ministry have nearly matched the U.N.’s own counts in past wars.

“Unfortunately, we have the sad experience of coordinating 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 Health Ministry says more than 78,500 people have been wounded in Gaza, thousands of them with amputations and severe injuries from bombardment. It says 496 medical personnel have been killed.

NPR reported earlier this year that the death count in Gaza is based on a combination of fatalities recorded in hospitals that are still partially operating, and on estimates from media reports to assess deaths in the north, where Israeli forces control access and where most hospitals have been raided and shut down.

A closer look at the backlash

Critics of the Health Ministry’s figures point to its administration under Hamas, the group that has governed the Gaza Strip since mid-2007, much of that under blockade.

In late October, after President Biden said he had “no confidence” in the figures reported by Gaza’s Health Ministry, the ministry published its database of thousands of victims’ names and other information.

Biden has since pressed Israel to limit civilian deaths, saying in an interview in March with MSNBC there cannot be “another 30,000 Palestinians dead.”

Israel blames Hamas for the high death toll in Gaza, saying its fighters use civilian infrastructure as cover.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the military has killed 14,000 combatants and about 16,000 civilians in its Gaza offensive. The Israeli government has not offered documentation or details on how it arrived at these figures.

Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari says Israel’s “war is against Hamas, not against the people of Gaza.”

“Prior to our operations we urge civilians to temporarily move towards humanitarian areas and move away from the crossfire that Hamas puts them in,” he said in a video this week.

NPR has also reported on civilian deaths from Israeli airstrikes in areas outside these evacuation notices.

What the Gaza death toll misses

The Gaza Health Ministry says its count of 35,000 people killed — including the nearly 8,000 children fully identified — does not include thousands more people trapped under the rubble of homes or hastily buried in mass graves or side streets.

The death count also does not include the untold numbers of people dying from preventable disease, malnutrition and other consequences of the war.

Israel has besieged the Gaza Strip for most of the war, impeding access to electricity, running water, food and medical aid. The U.N. World Food Programme says parts of northern Gaza are in “full-blown famine.”

Dr. Ismail Mehr, with the Islamic Medical Association of North America, was recently volunteering at a hospital in Gaza. He says every day he was declaring patients dead from treatable illnesses due to a lack of supplies and the crumbling health care system.

“Every day I, myself, [would] pronounce people dead from very routine medical conditions such as a grandmother with a urinary tract infection, the middle-aged man who dies from his diabetes because he doesn’t have access to his medicines,” he told NPR. He said their deaths are “forgotten because it’s not due to bombings and missiles and drones.”