Mapping the death toll in Gaza

Porträtt Nanar Hawach. 

I högintensiva konflikter är det oerhört svårt att verifiera data, säger Nanar Hawach, forskare vid institutionen för freds- och konfliktforskning. Foto: David Naylor

Researcher Nanar Hawach's work involves gathering information from various sources to detail every single death in the Israeli-Hamas war.
“We need to consider the ceasefire talks and whether they will even happen in 2024. Until then, these high numbers are likely to continue.”

In early May, many media outlets reported that the UN agency OCHA had revised downwards the number of identified people killed in the war between Israel and Hamas. According to Uppsala researcher Nanar Hawach, it is not unusual for death tolls to suddenly change in this type of war situation.

“In high-intensity conflicts, verifying data becomes incredibly challenging. For instance, pre-existing NGOs are often unable to operate due to the conflict's intensity, making it difficult to verify every single death,” says Hawach, Researcher at the Department of Peace and Conflict. He continues:

“What happened with OCHA is that they changed the source of their data, which now reflects greater uncertainty about the identity of the fatalities. While the total number of people killed remains the same, they now report lower numbers of identified women and children. On 8 May, they reported that out of the total of 34,000 fatalities, 24,000 are identified”.

Mapping every single death

Hawach works at the Uppsala Conflict Database (UCDP), mapping how many people have died as a result of armed violence in the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip. To obtain the most accurate figures, he uses both Palestinian and Israeli sources of several types: local and international organisations, news media and social media. Every single conflict event is carefully investigated by this triangulation approach.

“So this means we register each conflict-related event separately in our database. There may be thousands of people or hundreds of events a day. We collect data on how, when and exactly where they died, relying on these triangulated sources.”

Graph showing the number of deaths in conflict between 1989 and 2023 in Israel. There is a sharp peak in 2023 when over 20,000 deaths are reported.

This graph from The Uppsala Conflict Data Program shows the number of people who died as a result of armed violence in Israel and Palestine between 1989 and 2023.

A ceasefire is required

It takes time to verify and identify all deaths. That is why UCDP's figures differ from those reported by other organisations. Between 7 October and 1 May, UCDP has identified over 30,000 deaths. This is only counting deaths that are a direct result of the armed conflict. UCDP does not include people who die from starvation or lack of medicines, for example. Without a ceasefire, it is likely that the death toll will continue to remain high, Hawach says.

“We need to consider the ceasefire talks and whether they will even happen in 2024. Until then, these high numbers are likely to continue, and may even increase without access to humanitarian aid.”

High media attention

In terms of the number of people killed during a three-month period, the war between Israel and Hamas is not the worst conflict to take place in recent years. The war in Ethiopia, the war in Ukraine and the war in Syria all had higher death tolls. Hawach cites the Tigray war in Ethiopia as an example, where over 100,000 people were killed over a three-month period in 2022. Despite this, media coverage from there has been rather cool. But there has been a lot of engagement with the war in Gaza.

“First of all, I think it's because the access to information has been very good. Many organisations were already on the ground in Gaza and they have played a big role in drawing media attention to the conflict. They also play an integral role in applying pressure on Israel to account for civilian fatalities. Secondly, I think it's because the conflict has taken place in a besieged urban environment that civilians cannot evacuate from, which makes it a very difficult situation to witness.”

Hawach also believes the fact that Israel has close ties with the US and European countries may play a role.

“This means that pressure from the US and Europe could have a significantly bigger impact in mitigating civilian losses and human suffering, compared to conflicts in other countries.”

Sandra Gunnarsson

About UCDP

UCDP is the world’s most widely used data source on organised violence and the oldest project to collect data on civil wars still in operation. The UCDP definition of armed conflict has become the global standard for the systematic definition and study of conflict.

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