Image via United Nations/ YouTube

The United Nations recently updated how it shows data on the Palestinian death toll in Gaza, making some figures appear to decrease by nearly half. 

Days later, Israel released its first estimate of the death toll in Gaza as 16,000, which is more than 50% lower than the toll kept by the Hamas-administered Ministry of Health (MoH) in Gaza.

Media on the left tend to accept the numbers from the UN and MoH, and in some cases criticize them as possibly underestimating the true toll. Meanwhile, outlets on the right tend to suggest that Hamas may be intentionally inflating the death toll. 

Death tolls in war time are always controversial, but unique factors make this conflict even harder to track. Here’s a breakdown of the numbers and some contradictory and misleading narratives to be aware of.

What Changed About the Gaza Death Toll?

In a May 6, 2024 report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated the total Palestinian death toll was 34,735, citing the MoH.

This included over 9,500 women and over 14,500 children, the report added, citing the Hamas-run Government Media Office (GMO) in Gaza.

In a May 8, 2024 report from the same U.N. department, the framing changed. The ”reported” Palestinian death toll was listed as 34,844, but a new number of “identified fatalities” was added.

It appeared to show that the count of women killed dropped to 4,959, and the child-specific count dropped to 7,797. In addition, the GMO was no longer listed as the source of that data.

Up until the May 8 report, the UN hadn’t been distinguishing between “reported” and “identified” fatalities.

How is the Gaza Death Toll Calculated?

The MoH reportedly relies on multiple sets of input to track the death toll.

The first is from official hospital records. The second relied on vague “media sources” until mid-April, when it reportedly changed to sources with “incomplete data.”

Of the roughly 35,000 people killed in Gaza between Oct. 7 and mid-May 2024, according to the MoH, roughly 10,000 remain unidentified.

Why Did the U.N. Change From Using the Government Media Office Tally Back to the Health Ministry Count?

In a December 13, 2023 update, OCHA said the GMO’s methodology for calculating the death toll was unknown. However, it’s unclear why OCHA stopped using their data on the deaths of women and children.

In a briefing on May 13, 2024, a U.N. spokesperson said that the Ministry of Health updated how the death toll was broken down. The total death toll of around 35,000 had not changed, but the Gaza MoH began only counting the women and children who were fully identified, and there are many still unidentified. The spokesperson did not speak to the change from using GMO’s statistics. 

Why is the Gap Between the Two Counts So Big?

Some argue it’s because Hamas is overcounting the number of women and children killed. Others argue that the challenge of identifying the dead is being underestimated.

A writer for National Review (Lean Right bias) calls the numbers evidence of an inflated death count:

One has to rewind the clock to the early days of the war when both the Health Ministry and the GMO began to claim that 70 percent of the dead in Gaza were women and children. It was an assertion that seemed to settle the question of whether Israeli forces were waging war indiscriminately. The problem is that the data coming out of the hospitals could not sustain the claim. There were simply too many adult-male bodies to keep the percentage of women and children at or above 70. The GMO response to the problem was simply to keep raising the number of women and children in its toll despite the fact that this left no room for the men.”

Other outlets on the right share in the skepticism. Fox News (Right bias) said, “Hamas’ death toll figures have been disputed by Israel, which claims more than a third of those killed are combatants, yet they have been widely and unquestioningly quoted by the international media, humanitarian organizations and world leaders, including President Biden.” 

Avi Hayman, a spokesperson for the Israeli Government, said, "The United Nations has rubber-stamped these Hamas numbers and become a Hamas newswire to the world. In reality, Israel is setting the new gold standard for urban warfare with what appears to be the lowest civilian to combatant casualty ratios in history."

On the left, outlets are more likely to trust the explanation provided by the U.N. and Gaza MoH. For example, Al Jazeera (Lean Left bias) said the deaths were not revised down, and that “Some media outlets seized on the number breakdown as the UN having revised its numbers to a ‘more realistic figure’ — without clarifying — as evidence of anti-Israeli bias within the UN.”

Al Jazeera and the Guardian (Lean Left bias) both mention that the U.N. and World Health Organization call the MoH numbers credible. Al Jazeera adds, “MoH statistics have also been verified by Human Rights Watch and used by the United States Department of State in past conflicts and as recently as March 2023, despite US President Joe Biden questioning those numbers without evidence.” 

The right tends to argue that trusting death toll numbers from Hamas-led organizations indicates collusion or incompetence by the U.S. and international organizations. Many commentators and newsrooms on the right generally view Israel's statistics – which estimate that 16,000 people had been killed in Gaza as of May 15, rather than the 35,000 reported from Gaza – as more credible. 

While outlets on the right have criticized President Biden for not questioning the credibility of the numbers enough, some outlets on the left criticize him for questioning them at all when they are deemed credible by other organizations and government bodies. 

NBC News (Lean Left bias) also seemed to report the U.N. explanation as true, saying, 

(OCHA) told NBC News it had changed its regular updates on the death toll in Gaza to reflect breakdown [sic] by gender and age of the number of people who have been identified among those killed, rather than provide a breakdown of the total number of people killed…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.”

MSNBC (Left), said “[U.N. spokesperson Haq’s] remarks square with the Health Ministry's recent statement that about 10,000 people in its official count have not yet been identified. Christian Lindmeier, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization, backed the 35,000 figure as well.”

Where Has Media Coverage Created Confusion?

While the headline at Fox News was “UN revises Gaza death toll, almost 50% less women and children killed than previously reported,” The New York Times (Lean Left) wrote “U.N. Lowers Count of Women and Children Killed, Citing Incomplete Information.” 

The two headlines give very different impressions. Were less people killed than what was reported, implying the original information was dishonest, or was the information simply incomplete or improperly cited?

By only reading reports from outlets on the left, one might be confused why anyone would be skeptical of the U.N. and World Health Organization, and see the shift in the numerical breakdown of the deaths as reasonable. 

If you only read outlets on the right, you might not understand why anyone would trust organizations run by Hamas to report the numbers accurately when they have incentives to make the death toll appear higher than it may actually be. 

This has been a trend throughout the conflict. In March, Al Jazeera reported that “Israel has killed more than 13,000 children in Gaza,” citing numbers from the MoH. Outlets on the right rarely, if ever, report that data so matter-of-factly.

There are also some details that neither side reminds readers of enough. For example, unlike in many other conflicts, the death toll from the MoH relies heavily on reports other than official hospital records to count the number of deaths – potentially fueling overcounts. Plus, there are thousands of people feared missing beneath rubble in Gaza – potentially fueling overcounts.

“The Health Ministry in Gaza has struggled to keep an up-to-date electronic database with the name, age, gender and ID number of each person killed in the war due to the scale of deaths and because most hospitals in the Gaza Strip have collapsed and stopped functioning,” according to NPR (Lean Left).

Through the fog of war, claims of overcounts and undercounts can’t be easily proven or disproven. But by consuming media from across the political spectrum, one can better understand both sets of reasoning and decide for themselves.

Written by Clare Ashcraft, Bridging & Bias Specialist (Center Bias) with contributions by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center Bias).

This blog was edited and reviewed by Henry A. Brechter, Editor-in-Chief (Center Bias), Joseph Ratliff, AllSides Content Designer and News Editor (Lean Left bias), Andy Gorel, News Editor and Bias Analyst (Center bias), Malayna J. Bizier, News Assistant (Right bias), and Johnathon Held, News & Bias Assistant (Lean Right bias).