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Determining the Body Count in Gaza

The modern media coverage of war and conflict is a grim numbers game. As tensions escalate, so do the body counts. In Syria, Ukraine, Gaza and on other battlefields, the most visceral articulation of despair is a statistic: How many dead?

The fighting in Gaza, now in its second week, already has its own trove of casualty databases. The New York Times has kept a running tally of fatalities, and there are charts available to those who want to see all the deaths in the conflict since 2000 broken out by ethnic group, month and year. The Times put the death toll since July 8 at 556 Palestinians and 27 Israelis, as of Monday.

But those numbers — 556 and 27 — aren’t coming directly from the Times’ reporting on the ground. News organizations get their figures from the Palestinian Health Ministry and The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who in turn get theirs from humanitarian groups. OCHA’s role in Gaza is more information conduit than data-gatherer — the group compiles initial reports from the media and human rights groups inside Gaza, cross-checking them in order to ensure their veracity. In an email, Li Fung, head of OCHA’s Protection Cluster, told me that “fatality figures are only included once they have been corroborated by more than one organization.” She described the Protection Cluster as a “humanitarian coordination mechanism.”

OCHA uses local human rights organizations to ensure that it will have access to certain areas in the blockaded territory. Organizations like the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Al Mezan station field workers at local hospitals and morgues in Gaza, providing informal reports that are relayed back to offices in East Jerusalem and cross-checked with media reports and official statements.

One of OCHA’s human rights partners is B’Tselem, an Israeli organization founded in 1989, during the First Intifada. Its founders were a group of academics, lawyers and politicians looking to “document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories.” B’Tselem won that year’s Carter-Menil Award for Human rights, awarded by former President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center at Emory University. On the political left in Israel, B’Tselem receives donations from foundations in Europe and North America and private individuals in Israel and elsewhere. Its website says it is “The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.” In the past two years, it has been cited 20 times by The New York Times, 23 times by The Washington Post and a total of 246 times in major English-language newspapers, according to LexisNexis.

Over the weekend, I spoke with B’Tselem’s spokeswoman, Sarit Michaeli, to understand better how the numbers many of us take for granted find their way into daily news reports. We’ve lightly edited the interview for clarity and brevity.

Clare Malone: How long has B’Tselem been documenting casualty figures in Gaza?

Sarit Michaeli: Casualty counting has been a feature of B’Tselem’s work from the start. We maintain a database of all the casualties of the conflict — Israelis, internationals and Palestinians — and we try to also collect as much information about the circumstances of each incident in which people were killed, and then promote accountability if necessary on the basis of this research.

CM: What has a typical day on the ground in Gaza for B’Tselem workers looked like over the past couple of weeks?

SM: We have two field workers in Gaza; we just hired a third person to kind of stock up during the fighting, and we have an additional eight or nine field workers in the West Bank. These are Palestinians who live in their own communities who are quite in tune with the information and data flowing in. Those people are the first port of call for anyone who wants to report information to us, and they also of course try to go out and get information. In Gaza at the moment things are so crazy that we prefer that our field workers don’t go out that much. So it’s primarily those people glued to their phone, talking to as many people as they can — both official spokespeople but also individuals whose numbers they’ve managed to collect.

They get training on a whole range of issues — how to take testimonies and how to take photos, how to do videos, the legal framework. Some of them have been with us for 15 years. Trust in this field is crucial, especially for the Gazan field workers. We’re not allowed to enter Gaza; they’re not allowed to enter Israel, except for very specific cases. So all of the communication is on the phone or through SMSes or What’s App or Skype. It adds a layer to the importance of trust.

CM: Has the use of ground forces over the past few days affected data collection?

SM: The ground invasion means a lot of artillery fire and that isn’t the most accurate weapon in the Israeli arsenal. We wouldn’t want our field workers anywhere near those areas any time it isn’t as safe as possible. I know journalists have gone into some of these areas, but we ask our field workers to avoid them.

CM: Are there preferred sources field workers want to talk to when they’re working on gathering fatality figures? Is a medic from the scene better than, say, someone from the neighborhood?

SM: You want to speak to as many eyewitnesses as possible — in some cases if only one person experienced the incident then that’s all we have, but ideally you would get more than one eyewitness. You get the medical documents both from the ambulance and the hospital, and then there’s the official Palestinian announcement. There’s also a death certificate. ID [of the body] is not entirely possible during these operations, but you would document the bodies, both photograph them [and] try to get X-rays that were taken by the doctors, or at least take photos of these X-rays. In kind of the best circumstance we would try to advocate for autopsies, or least investigations or examinations of the bodies, but that’s very rare in Palestinian society.

All of this information is then compared with other sources by our office staff — official Israeli, Palestinian and international sources; news media; and statements by Palestinian armed groups in both traditional media and social media.

CM: Palestinians could stand to gain sympathy if they lied about how many civilians are killed. Do you think witnesses ever try to obfuscate the type of person who was killed?

SM: I think it’s not unheard of. I don’t think it’s as big of an issue as the Israeli government would present it to be. For Palestinians, being involved in legitimate — in their minds — resistance against Israelis isn’t a thing to be ashamed of. They’re proud of it, and the fighters are certainly proud of it. There are also stipends and payments to Palestinians who were killed while resisting the Israeli occupation. (Again, I’m using intra-Palestinian language.) So there are also some conflicting interests, and I think for many Palestinians they would gladly admit that their relative who was killed was involved as a fighter.

CM: During times like this do you release a fatality count every day?

SM: We rely on lists provided by other organizations and by the Palestinian Ministry of Health. We try to do a basic check of those lists, which is just cross-referencing them one to another, trying to get the basic data. Following the hostilities, when things have calmed down, our field workers will actually visit all of the civilians who are registered on these lists and try to get as much information about each one of them.

CM: So you’re sort of relying on other organizations for your fatality counts as well?

SM: Right. What we’re doing is that we’re specifying that this is initial information. Imagine the chaos at the hospitals in Gaza and the different morgues where bodies are brought in — it’s very, very difficult. It’s not as well organized as it is in a Western country, or in Israel, where bodies will be stored and there will be autopsies and examinations.

CM: I see B’Tselem cited in news reports more often — do you think that’s because it’s an Israeli organization? Do news outlets feel more comfortable taking your numbers?

SM: I think that Palestinian [organizations] don’t always appeal as much to the international media as we do because there’s a lot of information that they think might be tainted. But I would say primarily it’s because we’re very, very good at counting fatalities. It’s quite macabre and very depressing to say we’re good at it. We check and double-check everything before we publish it. Of course, that doesn’t stop both official Israeli spokespeople and self-styled Israeli government apologists from attacking us and smearing our figures and our methodologies. But I think, overall, reasonable people who are serious about wanting to study the data — not just use it as some kind of PR tool against Israel or for Israel or whatever — they respect us and our work.

Obviously it’s a very terrible task, registering fatalities, especially this time. There are so many women and children who were killed and so many entire families or very large parts of families who were killed. But it’s crucial if we are to get an understanding of the reality around us.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.