U.N. breakdown of Gaza death toll sparks confusion and anger

Top global health officials have said the number of women and children killed in Gaza has not been revised down after new details published by the United Nations last week sparked outcry and confusion.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told NBC News it had changed its regular updates on the death toll in Gaza to reflect breakdown by gender and age of the number of people who have been identified among those killed, rather than providing a breakdown of the total number of people killed.

As a result, the number of women and children listed on the site appeared lower than previously reported, because OCHA was listing only the breakdown of those who have been identified, while still noting the larger overall death toll above it.

But some Israeli officials incorrectly suggested that the data showed a significant drop in death toll numbers — and that this bolstered their claims that health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave inflate the number of children and women among the dead to disguise the large number of militant fighters killed.

The furor comes as Israeli forces push deeper into Rafah, forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee the city once declared a “safe zone.” Video captured by NBC News’ crew on the ground in recent days has shown homes reduced to rubble, while families at a city hospital mourn the dead, including children.

Previously, OCHA had reported the total number of people killed in Gaza (which reached 35,000 this month), along with a breakdown of the number of women and children among the dead, citing the government media office in Gaza. As of May 6, Day 213 of the war, OCHA reported that at least 14,500 children had been killed in Gaza, along with 9,500 women.

But starting two days later, May 8, OCHA appeared to change the source of its data, citing information from the ministry of health in Gaza, rather than the government media office, on how many women, children and men were among 24,686 people killed who had been fully identified as of April 30. It is not clear why the presentation of the data was changed.

The numbers appeared significantly lower, with 7,797 children among those who have been fully identified, along with 4,959 women and 10,006 men. A separate category was also included for the elderly, representing 1,924 people. It was not clear how many included in that category are women.

“The numbers have not dramatically shifted. The overall tally remains unchanged — 35,000,” OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke said in emailed comments to NBC News on Monday. “What is new is the level of verification (‘full details have been documented’) for a subset of 24,686 of those fatalities.”

It was not clear why OCHA did not appear to publicly announce or explain the shift in the representation of death toll data on its website.

The government media office in Gaza has continued to publish the death toll in the enclave, which it said Monday had reached 35,091, including 15,103 children and 9,961 women. NBC News could not independently verify the numbers.

When he first saw the new data published by OCHA, World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier told NBC News that he too found the information “striking.” But upon a closer look, he said it was clear that the way the data was being represented had changed.

Lindmeier said the confusion around the death toll data highlighted the “huge challenge” of trying to identify and quantify the dead in times of war.

He noted that Israeli officials had similar difficulties following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, with Israeli officials revising the death toll from 1,400 to around 1,200 in November.

“This is absolutely normal and to be expected that figures shift in one way or another,” Lindmeier said.

He added that the WHO remains confident that health officials in Gaza are acting in good faith.

Health officials there are the only official source with the ability to provide cohesive data on deaths amid the war, while local journalists and humanitarian groups have worked to document as much of the death and destruction as possible. Foreign journalists have largely been barred by Israel from entering Gaza.

The changes in OCHA’s representation of the data were quickly seized upon to support claims that death tolls coming out of Gaza couldn’t be trusted.

Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Israel Katz took aim at what he called “the miraculous resurrection of the dead” in a post on X on Monday, accusing the U.N. of antisemitism and supporting terrorism for relying on data from health officials in Gaza.

On a podcast published Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the ratio of Hamas militants to civilians in Gaza killed in the ongoing war was almost “1 to 1,” without providing evidence.

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the military does not target civilians and also doesn’t know how many have been killed.

“Hamas also doesn’t know how many civilians have been killed,” he said in a post on X.

American officials have suggested they consider the death toll given by Palestinians to be accurate. In his State of the Union speech in March, President Joe Biden said that “more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed. Most of whom are not Hamas.”

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