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Takeaways from AP analysis of Gaza Health Ministry’s death toll data

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JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israel-Hamas war appears to have become much less deadly for Palestinian women and children, according to an AP analysis of Gaza Health Ministry data.

The shift is significant because the death rate for women and children is the best available proxy for civilian casualties in one of the 21st century’s most destructive conflicts.

Women and children made up fewer than 40% of those killed in the Gaza Strip during April, down from more than 60% in October. The decline both coincides with Israel’s changing battlefield tactics and contradicts the ministry’s own public statements.

Here are takeaways from The Associated Press’ reporting.

FATALITY TRENDS AND THE TACTICS OF WAR

After Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, Israel launched an intense aerial bombardment on densely populated Gaza, and then invaded with thousands of ground troops backed by tanks and artillery.

By the end of October women and people 17 and younger accounted for 64% of the 6,745 killed who were fully identified by the Health Ministry.

After saying it had achieved many key objectives, the Israeli army began withdrawing ground troops earlier this year. It has focused lately on drone strikes and limited ground operations.

As the intensity of fighting has scaled back, the death toll has continued to rise, but at a slower rate – and with seemingly fewer civilians caught in the crossfire. During the month of April, women and children made up 38% of the fully identified deaths, the Health Ministry’s most recent data shows.

A TALE OF TWO DEATH TOLLS

The ministry announces a new death toll for the war nearly every day. It also has periodically released the underlying data behind this figure, including detailed lists of the dead.

The AP’s analysis looked at these lists, which were shared on social media in late October, early January, late March, and the end of April.

As recently as March, the ministry claimed over several days that 72% of the dead were women and children, even as underlying data showed the percentage was well below that.

Israeli leaders have pointed to such inconsistencies as evidence that the ministry is inflating the figures for political gain.

Experts say the reality is more complicated and that the ministry has been overwhelmed by war, making it difficult to track casualties.

CIVILIAN DEATHS FUEL CRITICISM OF ISRAEL

The true toll in Gaza could have serious repercussions.

Israel faces heavy international criticism over unprecedented levels of civilian casualties in Gaza and questions about whether it has done enough to prevent them in an eight-month-old war that shows no sign of ending. An airstrike in Rafah last month killed dozens of Palestinians, and one on a school-turned-shelter in central Gaza on Thursday killed at least 33 people, including 12 women and children, health officials said.

Two international courts in the Hague are examining accusations that Israel has committed war crimes and genocide against Palestinians – allegations it adamantly denies.

Israel says it has tried to avoid civilian casualties, issuing mass evacuation orders ahead of intense military operations that have displaced some 80% of Gaza’s population. It also accuses Hamas of intentionally putting civilians in harm’s way as human shields.

The fate of women and children is an important indicator of civilian casualties because the Health Ministry does not break out combatant deaths. But it’s not a perfect indicator: Many civilian men have died, and some older teenagers may be involved in the fighting.

MANY DEATHS COUNTED IN GAZA REMAIN ‘UNIDENTIFIED’

The ministry said publicly on April 30 that 34,622 had died in the war. The AP analysis was based on the 22,961 individuals fully identified at the time by the Health Ministry with names, genders, ages, and Israeli-issued identification numbers.

The ministry says 9,940 of the dead – 29% of its April 30 total – were not listed in the data because they remain “unidentified.” These include bodies not claimed by families, decomposed beyond recognition or whose records were lost in Israeli raids on hospitals.

An additional 1,699 records in the ministry’s April data were incomplete and 22 were duplicates; they were excluded from AP’s analysis.

Among those fully identified, the records show a steady decline in the overall proportion of women and children who have been killed: from 64% in late October, to 62% as of early January, to 57% at the end of March, to 54% at the end of April.

Some critics say the ministry’s imprecise methodologies – relying on families and “media reports” to confirm deaths – have added additional uncertainty to the figures.

The Health Ministry says it has gone to great lengths to accurately compile information but that its ability to count and identify the dead has been hampered by the war.

HEALTH MINISTRY STANDS BY ITS COUNT

Dr. Moatasem Salah, director of the ministry’s emergency center, rejected Israeli assertions that his ministry has intentionally inflated or manipulated the death toll.

“This shows disrespect to the humanity for any person who exists here,” he said. “We are not numbers … These are all human souls.”

He insisted that 70% of those killed have been women and children and said the overall death toll is much higher than what has been reported because thousands of people remain missing or are believed to be buried in rubble.

Israel last month angrily criticized the U.N.’s use of data from Hamas’ media office – a propaganda arm of the militant group – that reported a larger number of women and children killed. The U.N. later lowered its number in line with Health Ministry figures.

The number of Hamas militants killed in the fighting is also unclear. Hamas has closely guarded this information, though Khalil al-Hayya, a top Hamas official, told the AP in late April that the group had lost no more than 20% of its fighters. That would amount to roughly 6,000 fighters based on Israeli pre-war estimates.

The Israeli military has not challenged the overall death toll released by the Palestinian ministry. But it says the number of dead militants is much higher at roughly 15,000 – or over 40% of all the dead. It has provided no evidence to support the claim, and declined to comment for this story.

Michael Spagat, a London-based economics professor who chairs the board of Every Casualty Counts, a nonprofit that tracks armed conflicts, said he continues to trust the Health Ministry and believes it is doing its best in difficult circumstances.

“I think (the data) becomes increasingly flawed,” he said. But, he added, “the flaws don’t necessarily change the overall picture.”

By JOSEF FEDERMAN
Associated Press

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