The U.N. Is Citing Lower Casualties for Women and Children in Gaza. What Happened?

The United Nations has begun citing a much lower death toll for women and children in Gaza, relying on a more conservative source for the breakdown of people killed during Israel’s military offensive in the territory.

As recently as May 6, the U.N’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in regularly updated online report that at least 9,500 women and 14,500 children were among the dead, out of an overall death toll of 34,735.

Two days later, the U.N. said in another online update that 4,959 women and 7,797 children had been killed. While the total number of deaths remained roughly the same, a U.N. official said the age and gender of about 10,000 of the dead were not yet included in the new breakdown because information about their identities was still incomplete.

The change in U.N.’s numbers — and the confusion over the discrepancy — added fuel to a debate over the credibility of the Gazan authorities’ tallies of fatalities in the war. The deaths of women and children are seen as an important, if incomplete, indication of how many civilians have been killed, a question that lies at the heart of the debate over Israel’s conduct of the war.

Israeli officials have long said that they are skeptical of the numbers assembled by the authorities in Gaza. Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israeli forces had killed 14,000 Hamas militants and 16,000 civilians, without elaborating on the source for those numbers.

After the United Nations issued a lower documented death toll for women and children, Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, called the new numbers “the miraculous resurrection of the dead in Gaza,” saying the United Nations had relied on “fake data from a terrorist organization.”

The United Nations has not explained why it switched to citing a more conservative source for its numbers — the Gazan Ministry of Health — rather than using Gaza’s Government Media Office as it has in the past. Both offices are part of the Hamas-run government in the enclave.

Many international officials and experts familiar with the way the health ministry verifies deaths in Gaza — drawing from morgues and hospitals across the territory — say its numbers are generally reliable.

The health ministry says its count of women and children killed is based on the total number of people whose identities it can fully verify — 24,840 individuals in all as of May 13.

More than 10,000 other people have also been killed, the health ministry says, but it does not have their full names, official ID numbers or other information it needs to be certain of their identities. That is why they are not included in the breakdown of women and children killed which is now being cited by the U.N.

The United Nations said the process of fully identifying the additional 10,000 killed — along with their gender and age — was “ongoing.”

Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting.

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