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UN blames ‘fog of war’ for major overcounting of Gazan child deaths

“The revisions are taken … you know, of course, in the fog of war, it’s difficult to come up with numbers,” a U.N. spokesman told JNS.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres briefs the press at the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. The Secretary-General reiterated his calls for a humanitarian ceasefire and the cessation of violence, notably in Gaza on March 23, 2024. Credit: Mark Garten/U.N. Photo.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres briefs the press at the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. The Secretary-General reiterated his calls for a humanitarian ceasefire and the cessation of violence, notably in Gaza on March 23, 2024. Credit: Mark Garten/U.N. Photo.

The United Nations now claims that “the fog of war” is to blame for a major overstatement of the number of Gazan children who have been killed in the war.

In mid-March, the U.N. Children’s Fund stated that 13,450 children had been killed in Gaza, citing figures from the Hamas-run Gazan Health Ministry. Catherine Russell, the director of UNICEF, said in a television interview on March 17 that those numbers were “staggering” and “really shocking,” and “We haven’t seen that rate of death among children in almost any other conflict in the world.”

Last Wednesday, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released updated casualty figures. Some 7,797 Gazan children had died in the war as of April 30, it said—a roughly 42% drop from the mid-March numbers.

JNS asked Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, at a press conference on Friday why the math doesn’t add up. 

“The revisions are taken … you know, of course, in the fog of war, it’s difficult to come up with numbers,” Haq told JNS. “We get numbers from different sources on the ground, and then we try to cross-check them. As we cross-check them, we update the numbers, and we’ll continue to do that as that progresses.”

The 13,450 statistic was cited frequently in the international press, leading to accusations that Israel had committed war crimes, including targeting babies and children intentionally.

Even Hamas has since admitted that those numbers have turned out to be off by at least 40%. The United Nations revised its numbers last week, without providing an explanation.

“When it comes to Israel, it’s clear that the U.N.’s goal is not accuracy, but rather to immediately seize on any report, no matter how unsubstantiated or even manifestly false, in order to portray Israel as malevolent,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, told JNS. 

“The right thing for the U.N. to do now would be to admit that their casualty count in Gaza is a complete failure,” Neuer added.

OCHA also revised its casualty figures for women by nearly a half—from more than 9,500 to fewer than 5,000.

In a little-noticed change, OCHA differentiated in its new figures between “reported” and “identified” fatalities, including the 7,797 children figure in the “identified” category. 

Using OCHA’s math, out of 10,158 reported but unidentified casualties, 5,653 (56%) would have to be children to add up to the figures published in mid-March. That would be far more than is indicated by the information the United Nations released last week, which claims that children make up 32% of the identified deaths in Gaza.

Salo Aizenberg, an independent scholar and author, as well as a board member of HonestReporting, told JNS that “it’s absolutely true that the fog of war makes it difficult to assess casualties, but this was the case from the beginning of the war.”

“It’s outrageous that only seven months later, the U.N. is questioning the Hamas-supplied casualty numbers,” he said.

In early April, the Gaza Health Ministry said it had “incomplete data” for 11,371 of the 33,091 Palestinian fatalities it claimed to have documented at the time. The ministry later said it did not have names for more than 10,000 of the Gazans it claimed were killed in the war.

The ministry has not revealed publicly how it compiles its published information. No independent media exists in Gaza to try to verify it.

“For reporting Gaza deaths, there is no method and no standard of proof,” Neuer told JNS. “All the U.N. does is parrot figures supplied by Hamas, which is laundered and legitimized by the U.N. as the neutral-sounding ‘Gaza Ministry of Health,’ or ‘Government Media Office, when in fact both are run by the Hamas terrorist organization.”

‘The false data has infiltrated everywhere’

“Now that the U.N. has suddenly reduced some of the figures by half, they’ve essentially admitted to have been feeding the media and the world completely false numbers,” he said.

As recently as last month, the Hamas-run government media office has repeated claims that 70% of the deceased were women and children.

Haq, the U.N. spokesman, told JNS that “numbers get adjusted many times over the course of a conflict. Once a conflict is done, we’ll have the most accurate figures.”

But Aizenberg’s research has shown that “for many months, there have been obvious errors identified in the numbers published daily by OCHA, which are ultimately based on Hamas reporting,” the scholar told JNS.

Aizenberg pointed to an immediate claim by Hamas of nearly 500 deaths in an Oct. 17 strike on Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, which turned out to be a Palestinian rocket misfire and evidence suggests a drastically lower death total. Still, Hamas hasn’t corrected its initial tally.

His analysis has also revealed that Hamas reported on certain days in the first months of the war that more women and children were killed than the total number of all fatalities.

“We’re just going with what we can absolutely confirm, which will always be the low end of what the numbers are,” Haq, the U.N. spokesman, told JNS on Friday.

Abraham Wyner, a professor of statistics and data science at the University of Pennsylvania, published a statistical analysis two months ago that showed how Hamas faked casualty numbers.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy also released a report in January showing major discrepancies in the fatality reports, concluding they were most likely caused by manipulation.

“While it’s better late than never that the U.N. finally admits that the casualty numbers issued by Hamas for the last 200 days are not reliable, the false data has infiltrated everywhere,” Aizenberg told JNS.

He cited U.S. President Joe Biden’s claim in his March 7 State of the Union address that “more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed.”

The U.S. State and Defense Departments have also used that statistic officially, apparently relying on Hamas data.

Neuer told JNS that “If U.N. officials continue to legitimize a Hamas-run system that has now proven itself to be completely false, they will be complicit with terrorist propaganda.”

The revised Hamas casualty numbers, taken together with Israel Defense Forces claims of terrorists killed—a distinction Hamas does not make—“demonstrate that the civilian/casualty rate in Gaza is likely 1:1 or lower, which would amount to the lowest ratio in the history of urban combat, starkly contradicting any notion of indiscriminate IDF attacks,” Aizenberg told JNS.

JNS asked Haq on Friday if U.N. figures can be considered reliable.

“You can consider them reliable from the fact that we’re continually checking them,” he said. “We’ll continue to do that over the course of the war. But the numbers, you know, ultimately have to be regularly checked so that we can be sure that what we’re putting out is valid.”

In Jan. 2014, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights announced it had stopped updating the death toll from Syria’s civil war, as it could no longer verify the sources of information.

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