What Is the Death Toll in Gaza?


By all accounts, the devastation in Gaza since the commencement of Israel’s retaliation for the horrific Hamas attack on Oct. 7. has been significant. News and government sources report daily on the number of dead and injured in Gaza along with updates regarding the mounting humanitarian crisis and the need for food, water and medicine to avoid catastrophic famine.

The humanitarian concerns are real. Increased humanitarian aid is clearly needed. These concerns prompted President Joe Biden to announce in his State of the Union address on Mar. 7 that he has ordered the U.S. military to conduct an “emergency mission” to open a maritime route for humanitarian assistance to Gaza.

But what about the daily reports of casualties in Gaza? Are they real? Or are the numbers fabricated?

Reports of the mounting death toll in Gaza — currently at more than 30,000, with women and children making up the majority of the dead — are always qualified by reference to the fact that the numbers come from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry and are not independently verified. There are no alternative sources for the information.

In a recent article in Tablet Magazine, Abraham Wyner, professor of statistics and data sciences at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, asserts that the Gaza Health Ministry numbers are not real. In his article, entitled “How the Gaza Ministry of Health Fakes Casualty Numbers,” Wyner presents a compelling series of arguments — based on a statistical analysis of the Health Ministry’s reported number of daily deaths and the claimed numbers of women and children killed each day.

He finds that the daily “total” number of deaths increases “with almost metronomical linearity,” and has “striking little variation” on a day-to-day basis. In addition, “we should see a variation in the number of child casualties that tracks the variation in the number of women,” which is “a basic statistical fact about chance variability.” The Health Ministry’s reported numbers don’t do that.

Similarly, Wyner wonders about the Health Ministry’s claim that 70% of the Gaza casualties are women or children. He says that “this total is far higher than the numbers reported in earlier conflicts with Israel.” And he notes that “if 70% of the casualties are women and children and 25% of the population is adult male, then either Israel is not successfully eliminating Hamas fighters or adult male casualties are extremely low.” Wyner concludes that the Health Ministry numbers are “quite probably outright faked.”

The truth is not known. Wyner cites Israel’s estimate of killing at least 12,000 fighters in Gaza and argues that by historical standards of urban warfare, where combatants are embedded in the civilian population, even if one accepts the Health Ministry’s inflated death numbers, “then the ratio of noncombatant casualties to combatants is remarkably low: at most 1.4 to 1 and perhaps as low as 1 to 1.”

None of this changes the tragedy of the loss of innocent lives in war. Nor does it excuse any excesses in the war effort. But it does raise a question about the unconfirmed claims of the Health Ministry of the death toll and its victims in the war. Those numbers can be no more credible than Hamas itself.


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