As US casts doubt on casualty figures from Gaza, UN official says that few have doubted their reliability in the past.
The United Nations has said the figures provided by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza have proven consistently credible in the past, after US President Joe Biden cast doubt on the death toll provided by local authorities.
Speaking with reporters on Friday, the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) chief, Philippe Lazzarini, said that few have doubted the credibility of the figures in previous wars.
“In the past, the five, six cycles of conflict in the Gaza Strip, these figures were considered as credible and no one ever really challenged these figures,” Lazzarini told reporters in Jerusalem.
The Health Ministry, which utilises data from morgues and hospitals to reach its figures, released a 212-page document on Thursday with names and identity numbers of those killed.
Lazzarini’s comments come days after Biden said he had “no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed” amid Israel’s heavy bombardment of Gaza.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the “so-called” Gaza Health Ministry was “a front for Hamas”, the Palestinian armed group which governs Gaza.
Biden’s comments have drawn criticism from Palestinian rights advocates, as Israel carries out relentless air raids on Gaza after cutting off access to food, water, electricity, and fuel for the enclave’s more than 2.3 million residents.
“To dispute those figures was really, really just putting both feet in with Israel on this, in yet another way that dehumanises Palestinians,” Yara Asi, a Palestinian American public health expert at the University of Central Florida, previously told Al Jazeera.
The Health Ministry on Friday said at least 7,326 Palestinians have been killed and more than 18,000 wounded since Israel began bombarding Gaza after the October 7 attack of Hamas fighters on southern Israel. More than 1,400 people were killed in the attack, according to Israeli authorities.
Israel later imposed a “complete siege” on Gaza and its bombing campaign has left entire neighbourhoods reduced to rubble and hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
Humanitarian groups, international organisations including the UN, news organisations, and branches of the US government have cited Health Ministry figures and generally found them reliable across several previous rounds of fighting in Gaza.
Previous death tolls have also held up to scrutiny when subjected to independent investigations. A report by the news outlet Huffington Post found that the Biden administration’s State Department has consistently relied on them over the last two weeks, raising few concerns about their accuracy.
“The numbers may not be perfectly accurate on a minute-to-minute basis,” Michael Ryan, of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme, told The Associated Press news agency. “But they largely reflect the level of death and injury.”
Following an explosion at the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza last week, which Israel and the armed group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have blamed on each other, health authorities said about 500 people had been killed.
The figure was later revised downwards to 471. According to the Reuters news agency, an unclassified US intelligence report estimated that the “number of deaths is probably at the low end of the 100-to-300 spectrum”.