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The death toll in Gaza hits a grim new milestone

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Gaza health ministry says more than 30,000 people have been killed in the war there, and we're getting reports today of dozens more killed by Israeli forces as they were awaiting aid in the north.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This death toll is one measure of the human cost of the Israel-Hamas war. The Hamas attack on Israel last October killed more than 1,200 people. Since then, Israel's critics have pointed to the rising Gaza death toll to argue that Israel's response is disproportionate. Israelis have challenged this number and said some of the dead are Hamas fighters, while Palestinians have reported that most are women and children.

MARTÍNEZ: We're joined now by NPR correspondent Aya Batrawy in Dubai. What do we know about who has been killed in Gaza?

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Well, the ministry has been keeping detailed records from hospitals that show most of the deaths since the war began are women and children. That's very much not in dispute. And we've spoken to countless survivors in Gaza and witnessed through our own producer there attacks where victims of Israeli airstrikes were civilians, including women, men and children.

And I spoke with a mother early in this war who was in Gaza City. She was trying to survive those airstrikes all around her. And a few weeks later, she was killed by one of them, including 22 members of her family. Some of those bodies were never retrieved, including her husband and son. And that really speaks to a larger issue in the official count, which is there are so many missing people that aren't included in the death toll. Now, as Steve mentioned, what's not clear is how many Hamas fighters have been killed in Gaza.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, we hear bodies buried in the rubble. How many might that be?

BATRAWY: Thousands - and not just those buried. I mean, there are also people missing who were hastily buried with no way to record their deaths in hospitals, people lying in the streets that can't be reached.

You know, I spoke with a senior Palestinian health ministry official in the West Bank last month. Dr. Yaser Bozya works closely with the Gaza health ministry. Here's what he said.

YASER BOZYA: This is an underestimation because it's more than 10,000 people under rubble - at least.

BATRAWY: Yeah. And he says the death toll also doesn't include people dying because they can't access treatment. It only includes those from direct violence, so mostly airstrikes. And, you know, researchers and aid agencies say many thousands more will die in Gaza, even if the war ended today, from disease and hunger-related causes.

MARTÍNEZ: What are the challenges that the health ministry is facing while trying to compile accurate data on the number of people killed?

BATRAWY: Well, we analyzed one of their reports on the death toll. And what I found was a system that's completely strained under the weight of this war. I mean, in the early days of Israel's heavy bombardment of Gaza, you know, hospital emergency rooms are recording the name, age, gender and ID numbers of each victim into an electronic database. And that list was made public about three weeks into the war, after President Biden cast doubt on the number of people killed provided by Gaza's health ministry, which is administered by Hamas.

But by around mid-November, there were communication blackouts across Gaza and lethal Israeli raids on key hospitals in the north as, you know, the military searched for hostages and Hamas. But this led to disruptions in the death count and the electronic database. You know, and medical staff themselves were detained, killed, or they had to flee these hospitals and move south.

So the ministry's death toll is mostly based on hospital records, but there are just a few functioning hospitals now in Gaza. So what the ministry's doing is they're increasingly relying on estimates from public sources and media reports for casualties in the north, like today's attack, where Israel controls access. And even so, the health ministry's figure is still widely seen as the most reliable one available. And in past wars, it's been mostly consistent with the U.N. and Israel.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Aya Batrawy speaking with us from Dubai. Thank you very much.

BATRAWY: Thanks always, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.