UN, human rights, media groups rely on Hamas death toll in ‘systematic deception’: expert

JERUSALEM – Media outlets, humanitarian organizations and the United Nations continue to report and rely heavily on death toll data shared by Hamas-run ministries in Gaza, even though they recognize that the figures are no longer reliable and are now only an “estimate,” as the Israeli military offensive to wipe out the Islamist terror group after its Oct. 7 massacre causes a chaotic and deepening humanitarian crisis in the territory. 

However, international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and the official Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, as well as many mainstream news outlets around the world, continue to maintain that the sensitive and inflammatory data – which could easily be another element of Hamas’ war propaganda – can and should be considered reliable.

“Western leaders should be concerned about civilian casualties, of course, but they don’t account sufficiently for Hamas manipulating the numbers and using its people as human shields,” David Adesnik, a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), told Fox News Digital. 

However, Richard Peeperkorn, WHO representative in the Palestinian territory, told Fox News Digital that “in any conflict, the WHO relies on figures from the Ministry of Health” and that it does assessments of the health system’s reliability every two years. 

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While health systems in the Palestinian territory, which includes the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, have scored high in the past, the Hamas-run Ministry did provide a detailed and verified list of the dead in the second or third week of this current conflict, “in the last couple of weeks the system of reporting deaths and fatalities has become impossible,” he claimed. 

“All the data servers in the north [of Gaza] have collapsed and since that time they are making estimations of [the death toll],” Peeperkorn said, giving his own assessment that the number of dead might even be higher with the dead lying beneath the rubble of buildings destroyed in the fighting. 

Meanwhile, in an official briefing on Tuesday Peeperkorn read with confidence the latest death toll count from the Hamas-run Ministry of Health, stating that as of Dec. 11, at least 18,205 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7. The majority, he added, quoting the Hamas numbers, being women and children. 

The latest figure quoted by OCHA as of Dec. 14 was 18,787 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza.

For most international bodies and media outlets, the reliance on Hamas, an internationally recognized terror organization trained and funded by Iran, is simply due to the fact there is no other available information. While there is some recognition that the casualty figures have not been independently verified, the figures are still broadcast across the globe where they are repeated with little context or explanation. 

For example, the daily “Flash updates,” shared by the U.N. agency OCHA, offers a detailed breakdown of where and when at least some people are killed each day in Gaza. However, the timeline of their reports became blurry after the Ministry of Health’s data collection system collapsed and ceased to function during the first week of November as Israeli forces advanced through the Strip. Reports have noted that some doctors at Gaza’s main medical facility, al-Shifa Hospital, where the death toll was officially recorded, were arrested by Israel. Others, reports said, have been killed or are missing. 

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For much of the last month, OCHA turned to quoting figures provided by the terror group’s “media office,” although it did revert to citing the Gaza Ministry of Health on Dec. 1 – the day the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas collapsed with no explanation or clarification. Its homepage was only updated to reflect that on Monday, following a query.

Juliette Touma, director of communications for UNRWA, which is responsible for facilitating aid going into Gaza but has faced criticisms in the past of allowing Hamas to run military operations from its premises, also said that it used “unverified” Hamas death toll figures among the information shared on its website

“The only verified figures on casualties that we use are UNRWA staff killed,” Toume told Fox News Digital, explaining that like other agencies and much of the media, it recited Hamas information. 

“These organizations have no one else to rely on,” a journalist, who worked for a well-known media outlet in Gaza on and off for more than a decade, told Fox News Digital. “The U.N. is dependent on the Gaza Health Ministry and the ministry – and by extension Hamas – has them all in its hands.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, the journalist said that this was not always the case. Before Hamas took over Gaza in a bloody coup in 2007, the Palestinian Authority, which is the main governing body for semi-autonomous areas of the West Bank, was running the Gaza Health Ministry “it did the right thing.” 

“Over time, however, Hamas has seen the benefits of skewing or promoting the numbers when it sees fit, to serve its purpose,” the journalist said. “And then it acts as if it’s shocked that anyone would question its probity.” 

The journalist added, “while there is no evidence that Hamas inflated the death tolls in previous conflicts, death tolls are a newsworthy item, and the quicker a high death toll figure is out there in the media, the more likely it is to lead the day’s news.” 

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“Hamas is very effective at getting a large ‘wow’ death toll figure out to reporters, who report it without question – it may be right, it may be wrong, we just don’t know,” said the journalist, highlighting a recent case at al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza that sparked headlines and later retractions by some media outlets. 

“It was definitely wrong – almost completely made up – and yet ALL international media reported the death toll figure from their Gaza reporters without questioning it,” said the journalist. “The interest is to gain sympathy, lead news reports with Israel as the aggressor and Palestinians as the victims and build up propaganda case.” 

A senior Israeli military official, speaking anonymously in accordance with army protocols, told Fox News Digital on Tuesday that the army was working to independently clarify the death toll in Gaza, but that with such major numbers, “it will likely take a long time for us to understand this.” 

In the past, the Israeli army carried out its own data analysis into the deaths, concluding that while the overall numbers cited by Hamas were not totally inflated, the terror group made little distinction between terrorists and innocent civilians who were killed. 

In the 51-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2014, for example, Hamas claimed that 2,310, mostly civilians, were killed. The U.N. reported 2,251, and the Israeli army counted 2,125, but as many as 44% of those killed were combatants.

“This is nothing like previous conflicts,” the Israeli military official said, using the example of the massive earthquake earlier this year in Turkey, where the death toll was difficult to determine as numerous dead remained buried beneath the rubble.

“I am not even sure that in the next year, we will be able to understand how many people were killed in places like Beit Hanoun or Shati,” the official added, referring to sites of recent battles in Gaza.

While the army has not released any official estimates of how many terrorists it believes it has killed in the fighting, Israel’s National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi told an Israeli news channel over the weekend that the number was likely close to 7,000. If accurate, then it could throw a serious question mark on Hamas claims that 70% of those killed so far have been women and children. 

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“Hamas has clearly sought to inflate the civilian death toll in previous conflicts, but not necessarily the overall death toll,” FDD’s David Adesnik noted.

He continued, “Inflating the civilian death toll is integral to Hamas’ strategy today as it was in the past,” he said, adding, “Hamas wants to generate Western pressure on Israel to stop its counteroffensive, and it knows from experience that Western media is likely to present Israel as mainly responsible for the loss of life, and Western leaders, including many in Washington will take their cues from the media.” 

“By generating political pressure on Israel, Hamas hopes to achieve diplomatically what it could never achieve on the battlefield,” Adesnik said.

“The media is choosing to ignore evidence of systematic deception,” Adesnik continued. “I’d be surprised if the media, in other circumstances, would trust data from any organization with this kind of record of deception, but the death and suffering of Gaza civilians is clearly the narrative framework most journalists apply to any fight between Israel and Hamas and this gives the U.N. and other international organizations ample cover to cite statistics that match their political sympathies.”

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