Palestinian men carry civilians—including children wrapped in white cloths—killed by Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Palestinian men carry the bodies of the father and three children of Al Zinaty family killed in an Israeli airstrike on Khan Yunis, Gaza on October 23, 2023.

(Photo: Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The Atlantic’s Sloppy Reporting on UN Gaza Statistics Jeopardizes Its Credibility

The whole exercise of asking whether these numbers are accurate is just distraction and obfuscation.

A friend with whom I regularly discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recently told me that The Atlantic is the place to go for “serious news” on the topic. I subscribed through their website, and the first thing that caught my eye was a short piece dated May 17 by Graeme Wood entitled “The U.N.’s Gaza Statistics Make No Sense.”

The article analyzed a recent update by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory (OCHA oPt) on the death toll during Israel’s assault on Gaza. (The regular updates are published here.) Wood concludes that the office “jeopardized its credibility by repeating dubious numbers, long after the reasons for doubting them had been explained. That credibility is a precious resource.” Wood proposes that Israel embed more reporters with its troops to counteract these fake “statistics from Hamas.”

This news story had been widely reported, and (quite surprisingly) many media outlets accurately reported the basic facts. As an American trauma surgeon who just returned from working in Gaza, who has edited books on the human rights dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the University of California Press and O/R Books in London, and who has a master’s in public health from Harvard, I figured this article would let me assess the credibility of this “serious news” source.

I would encourage Wood to spend five minutes in any hospital in Gaza and then see if he ever repeats such a claim.

I started off skeptical, but I was still shocked to see the sloppiness with which The Atlantic reported this story. Wood claims the “most detailed account of what had happened” came from a right-wing think tank’s Twitter account, but there are much more serious sources. Three days before Wood’s piece was published, Israel’s leading newspaper Haaretz provided a detailed explanation that answered virtually every question Wood raised in his piece. To be sure, the mundane nature of the updates wouldn’t have made for such a salacious article as the one The Atlantic published. Nevertheless, they are a simple matter, the facts of which are widely known.

As Haaretz reported, the previous total count was a combination of media reports collected by the Hamas-run Information (or Media) Office and the Ministry of Health data. “There’s about another 10,000 plus bodies who still have to be fully identified,” stated U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq, “and so then the details of those—which of those are children, which of those are women—that will be re-established once the full identification process is complete.” Wood quotes Mr. Haq, but only to cast doubt and confusion about the updates. Dr. Mark Perlmutter and I described the state of many bodies brought into the hospital morgues of Gaza: “burned until they resembled blistered hotdogs more than human beings, shredded to pieces such that they can only be buried in mass graves.” Is it really such a shock that many such corpses cannot be definitively identified, but nevertheless are a human being who was killed? I would encourage Wood to spend five minutes in any hospital in Gaza and then see if he ever repeats such a claim.

Wood even stated that he doesn’t know why OCHA oPt relied on the Media Office in Gaza instead of the Ministry of Health, but the reason was widely reported:

The Gaza health ministry says its daily tally now relies on a combination of accurate death counts from hospitals that are still partially operating, and on estimates from media reports to assess deaths in the north of Gaza, where Israeli forces control access. Its detailed daily report shows that its electronic system for counting the dead was disrupted on Noveber 12, when communication was lost with three major hospitals in the north, soon followed by more in other parts of Gaza.

A Reutersarticle from the same day as the Haaretz piece discussed a World Health Organization briefing on the same changes: “Nothing wrong with the data, the overall data (more than 35,000 dead) are still the same,” said WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier at a press conference in Geneva. Mr. Lindmeier went on to explain that it is normal “for death tolls to shift in conflicts, recalling that Israel had revised down its own death toll from the Octoer 7 Hamas attacks [from 1,400] to 1,200 after checks.”

Even CNN managed to properly convey the basic facts:

The number [of women and children who are fully identified] was reduced because the U.N. says it is now relying on the number of deceased women and children whose names and other identifying details have been fully documented [in the Ministry of Health database], rather than the total number of women and children killed [as reported by the Media Office]. The ministry says bodies that arrive at hospitals get counted in the overall death count.

In other words if any single piece of information about a corpse is unknown—name, ID number, date of birth, and whatever else the Ministry of Health considers essential to full documentation—then that person is counted in the overall count but not specified in the breakdown of men, women, children, and elderly. “Two officials from the Palestinian Ministry of Health have told CNN that although the ministry keeps a separate death toll for identified and unidentified individuals, the total number of people killed remains unchanged.”

So, when someone’s identify can be fully verified they are moved from the unidentified database to the identified database, and then they are reported in the total number of people killed and in the subcategory that they fall into: man, woman, child, elderly. If they cannot be fully identified then they stay in the unidentified database and are included in the overall count but not in the subcategories. For anybody who has ever looked at a spreadsheet there is nothing complicated or confusing about this. Nothing about it implies anything other than a decision by the Hamas governing authority to be transparent about the death toll and the available data on who has been killed in Gaza.

Wood even claimed to be confused about where these unidentified bodies are coming from, and claimed it is “just a vaguely-defined ‘report’ from outside the hospital system.” This is completely false; all dead counted in these tallies were delivered to hospital morgues and died of violent causes. That is precisely why every responsible news organization reports that the death toll does not count people buried under the rubble, estimated by the Palestinian Civil Defense at more than 10,000.

Indeed, there seems to be utter confusion on Wood’s part about two different groups of people. The number of dead who are not fully identified is approximately 10,000, and the number of bodies estimated to be buried under the rubble is also approximately 10,000. But these are two separate groups of dead that just happen to both contain an estimated 10,000 people.

And while Wood clearly states that this update proves that the “numbers from Hamas’ Government Media Office” and “Hamas’ numbers” and the “figure… generated by Hamas” and the “statistics from Hamas” and “Hamas’ official figures” and “Hamas’ propaganda” and “Hamas’ allegations” are falsified, he never mentions the many sources that show in detail that “Hamas’ official figures” are in fact quite accurate and possibly even an undercount.

And it’s not just media organizations: Wood could have consulted this article or this one in the world’s leading medical and public health journal. Indeed, Wood could have avoided writing his whole article by simply noting that after investigating them evenIsraeli military intelligence believes “Hamas’ official figures”! As a military intelligence source told the Israeli magazine Mekomit: “It is assumed that there is a gap between the data and the reality and that they may be manipulating, but they [Israel] checked, and it is reliable. Also see that in previous rounds [of fighting between Palestinian armed groups and the Israel Defense Forces] the reports of the Ministry of Health in Gaza were reliable.” To borrow a phrase from Abba Eban, “it takes a great effort of imagination” to see the IDF as being duped by Hamas propaganda.

As Wood noted, “credibility is a precious resource,” and the OCHA oPt has proven it cannot be trusted: “Operating a statistics laundromat for Hamas’ media wing is embarrassing.” And what is truly bewildering is that this passes for “serious news.” There is no reason to doubt “Hamas’ official figures” whatsoever. On its history page, The Atlantic notes that its founders “wanted to pursue truth and disrupt consensus without regard for party or clique.” A version of this article was sent to The Atlantic as a letter to the editor and to their corrections department, with no response from either one.

But there is a far more important point than all the minutiae above: The whole exercise of asking whether these numbers are accurate is just distraction and obfuscation. According to the main monitor of major food insecurity in the world, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, an estimated 1 million Gazans—half the population—are now in catastrophic food insecurity and famine conditions. This means approximately 6,000 deaths per month from starvation, half of them in children under the age of five. And none of these people are included in these statistics. Alex de Waal warned in March: “Gaza is already the most intense starvation catastrophe of recent decades… Famine is unfolding in Gaza today. We should not have to wait until we count the graves of children to speak its name.”

Cease-fire now.

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