Over a month into the Israel-Hamas war, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry said the death toll from Israeli attacks surpassed 11,000 people by November 13.
Israel disputes the death toll, accusing Hamas of exaggeration and using civilians as a shield and firing at Israeli troops stationed to secure the route for civilian evacuation
But the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Found or UNICEF said last week the death toll from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza is likely accurate.
And the United States has been seeking to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, pushing Israel to reduce the number of airstrikes and avoid striking targets with potential civilian presence, a top U.S. State Department official told Reuters on November 6.
Israel launched air and ground operation aimed at eliminating Hamas fighters in Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attack that killed at least 1,200 Israelis and foreigners, mostly civilians, with another 240 taken hostage.
Since then, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry remains the main source of information about the casualties and the overall situation in Gaza.
Last week, the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh told the Paris Conference on the humanitarian situation in Gaza that the Israeli army had killed more civilians in Gaza in just one month, than all those who died in Ukraine in 17 months:
"How many Palestinians are to die for this war to end? Are six children and four women dying every hour enough? Are 10,000 dead in 30 days enough? That's more than those who died over 530 days in Ukraine."
This comparison is misleading.
The U.N. had verified at least 9,701 civilian deaths in Ukraine by September. Kyiv maintains the numbers are ten-fold higher. The 11,000 deaths in Gaza are not independently verified. Palestinian figures do not differentiate between combatant and civilian casualties.
The debate around the death toll in Gaza also raises a question of journalistic integrity and trust, as major news media use the information provided by Hamas, often emphasizing it in emotive headlines. In comparison, the same news media almost never use the data provided by the Ukrainian government, relying instead on the independently verified information from the international watch dogs and agencies.
Among those skeptical about Hamas-provided information is U.S. President Joe Biden. Speaking at the White House press conference on October 25, Biden said he has "no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using" for the death toll in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
Despite the UNICEF assurances, the Gaza Health Ministry’s information is not always accurate. There have been instances when the ministry provided false or misleading information.
For example, on October 17, the Health Ministry of Gaza accused Israel of striking the Ahli Arab Hospital hospital and killing “at least 500 people.”
Both those claims turned out to be false.
Israeli and U.S. intelligence reported that the blast at a Gaza hospital “was caused by a Palestinian rocket that suffered engine failure and broke apart into two pieces, with the warhead striking the hospital’s parking lot."
Hamas was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and other countries.
In 2006, Hamas won elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, receiving a majority of votes there, and in 2007, it violently seized control of the Gaza Strip, bringing the territory completely under its control.
Regardless of whether the Gaza Health Ministry death toll is accurate or not, Shtayyeh’s comparison with Ukraine is misleading. While speaking of “503 days in Ukraine,” the prime minister ignored key figures of total losses on both sides of the Ukraine-Russia war.
The U.S. intelligence agencies estimated in August that the combined Ukrainian and Russian losses of killed and injured troops had reached more than half a million.
When it comes to civilian losses, the situation is even more complicated as many Ukrainian towns and cities remain under Russian occupation making them inaccessible for the Ukrainian authority to collect and identify the bodies, and for the United Nations and other international watchdogs to verify the death toll.
Over the last two years, satellite imagery identified multiple mass graves around and in Mariupol, including one that is estimated to have at least 9,000 bodies.
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said it has “recorded 27,449 civilian casualties in the country: 9,701 killed and 17,748 injured,” between February 24, 2022, and September 24, 2023.
“[T]he actual figures are considerably higher, as the receipt of information from some locations where intense hostilities have been going on has been delayed and many reports are still pending corroboration," the report said.
The head of the war crimes department in Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office Yuriy Belousov says the number of civilian victims of Russian aggression is 10 times higher than the U.N. data.
“The number of dead citizens throughout Ukraine, whose bodies will need to be found and identified in the occupied territories, could reach 100,000,” Belousov said in an interview with The Independent.
Of the 10,000 bodies found by Ukrainian authorities in the liberated cities and towns, 3,500 are still unidentified, another 21,500 civilians are considered missing.
Some foreign intelligence agencies and watchdogs concur with the Ukrainian government estimates. Norwegian Chief of Defense Eirik Kristoffersen, in an interview with TV2, a Danish government-owned broadcast, said that Ukrainian military losses are “probably over 100,000 dead or wounded. In addition, Ukraine has about 30,000 civilians who died in this terrible war."