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Gaza-Israel deaths: Why are we deluding ourselves?

Graffiti saying "Gaza isn't ours" and "enough bombing." Location: In central Tel Aviv in the year 2012! Photo: Martin Wein
Graffiti saying "Gaza isn't ours" and "enough bombing." Location: In central Tel Aviv in the year 2012! Photo: Martin Wein

Hamas death counts were accurate in the past, but what if the organization has changed its strategy, and now simply lies, or has no clue? What if Israeli leaders lie, too, and/or have no clue? What if both sides cite lower numbers, just to make their failures look smaller on the public stage? And why do we willingly buy into it?

Officially, the victim numbers of the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, backed by the United States and Germany among others, have passed 32,000 people. However, even this number seems unrealistically low, given some of the key elements at play here, like carpet bombing, epidemics, famine. It’s “only” over one percent of Gazans that have died after half a year of one of the most intensive military onslaughts in history? Is this even remotely plausible?

No, 32,000+ is merely the death toll, people directly killed by arms and also duly recorded, not the much higher excess mortality, i.e. the number of people who died unregistered, or from secondary causes related to this disaster.

This universally peddled underestimate serves Western and Israeli interest by making the humanitarian crimes being committed by their elites seem much smaller. Controversially, U.S. President Joe Biden at one point doubted even these unrealistically low numbers.

At the same time, however, Hamas’ criminal leadership, too, share in this cynical interest to keep the official Gaza victim numbers down – and for their own political reasons. The group acknowledged from the beginning that it was fully aware of a massive sacrifice of Gaza civilians that would follow it’s Oct. 7 attack. Although their lists seem plausible and reliable overall, as The Lancet has insisted, these lists are undoubtedly incomplete, and Hamas has deliberately undercounted Gaza victim numbers from the start.

Already in November, AP reported that due to communication breakdowns and logistical collapse, Hamas itself actually announced in November that it was not really able to count the dead any more. Reports and footage have emerged of data centers left behind dysfunctional, apparently destroyed by Hamas, before Israeli troops entered various hospitals, destroying patient data, which is a crime in and by itself.

According to an Israeli intelligence source, who wishes to remain unnamed, a rough working estimate of Gazans already killed and circulated among Israeli specialists over the last weeks, is around 55,000, with over half of them being civilians.

But why and how would Hamas downplay the victim numbers of the Gaza conflict? First and foremost, the entire Operation “Al Aqsa Flood,” which began on Oct. 7, 2023, broke with established orthodoxies of the Palestinian resistance movement. In fact, it was a volte face.

On all levels of the operation, and specifically in its visual messaging, Hamas’ leadership tried something new: projecting not weakness and victimhood to hope for the world’s pity, but self-confidence. Palestinian soldiers liberating their ancestral homeland. And this also led to the reckless manipulation in Gaza’s death numbers. The “strong” should have few losses and hide weakness.

Indeed, Israel has been repeatedly lowering its estimates of its own Oct. 7 victim numbers to now ca. 1,140, including some 70 foreigners, claiming that some of the charred bodies were only identified as being Gazan rather than Israeli after extensive forensic analysis. But is this really so, or was the original number published, ca. 1,400, closer to the truth?

And how about the rise in heart attacks in Israel after October 7? And are the officially released numbers of soldiers who have died inside Gaza, ca. 250 since the invasion began, too often by friendly fire or in accidents, really final and complete? In addition, there are reports of Israeli soldier returning with invasive fungal infections that can be fatal.

We may never know how many Gazans crossed over into Israel on Oct.7, including Hamas militia, other fighters, and private individuals. Estimates run into several thousands. Few of those returned to Gaza, with or without hostages. Many, probably most, were either killed or arrested. Some died under arrest, officially nearly 30, or may have been tortured (causing death) while trying to obtain information on Hamas memberships, exact roles, and the whereabouts of Israeli hostages.

And while Israel has included in its initial body counts both civilians and military casualties, which is admittedly unusual, but offers a separated listing, as well, Hamas’ Gaza death figures are not differentiated at all. Further, Hamas simply discounted all the Gazans, military or civilians, who “disappeared” inside Israel. They somehow never seem to have entered those alleged statistics.

Anther major manipulation of the Gaza death toll concerns the so-called “missing people,” which are not counted as dead by the Hamas-run Health Ministry, yet. But according to outside observers such as Euro-Med Monitors, these are usually not people who simply lost contact with their family, but rather bombing victims buried deep under the rubble of collapsed buildings. After days or weeks of rescue failing to arrive, these people have long died, and the screams which end up stopping and the stench of death hanging over the area is a testimony to that.

Yet another issue concerns the injured people in Gaza. They, as well as parts of the starving population are in fact dead already, as well, but not counted as casualties by Hamas, it seems. Injured people, who miraculously make it to one of the handful of still partly-functioning Gaza hospitals, are often duly registered as such, but then often either not treated at all, or released with a very bad prognosis and no possible backup treatment. Due to the absence of the most basic medical supplies such as disinfectants or antibiotics, even a small surface wound may spell death for many Gazans now, as it would have anywhere in the pre-modern period.

Combined with malnutrition, dehydration, constantly re-enforced mental trauma, hypothermia, and the impossibility to sleep under non-stop bombing raids, many people, who appear to die a natural death are actually indirect victims, specifically among the elderly and babies, as well as pregnant women and people with special needs, It is unclear, if their names are properly recorded by Hamas authorities before burials, which are often improvised under fire.

Finally, epidemics, suicides, and long-term effects of malnutrition, dehydration, accidents in the hazardous ruined cityscape full of bits and pieces of arms, exploded or not, as well as a ruined health care system and a drastic reduction in quality of life, will lead to mass deaths in Gaza, even if the war is suddenly over tomorrow.

Projections by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the John Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health warn of a major surge in excess deaths due to secondary causes, namely up to 86,000 within six months. According to an earlier estimate by the University of Edinburgh, a quarter of the entire population of Gaza may be dead within a matter of a year, i.e. nearly 600,000 – possibly counting from the beginning of the conflict, or else from the publication of the research in December 2023.

To estimate the disparity between officially recorded death toll and excess death rate, the Covid19 epidemic provides a good model of how “good” official institutions are in recorded deaths, even without a war . In some countries the population loss in comparison to regular years was multiple times higher than the official Covid19 death toll figures reported.

According to the WHO, true Covid19-caused excess mortality was on global average triple of what was officially indicated by governments, and in India, notoriously, even ten times higher. Applying this model to the Gaza situation, is it possible that the excess mortality in Gaza already now is roughly three to ten times higher than the officially indicated death rates, i.e. ca. 93,000-320,000?

So why are we deluding ourselves into the security of numbers, which are almost certainly gross underestimates (regardless of the gross disparities between the sides)?

The answer is probably our collective urge to deny the dimensions of the tragedy and its unfolding fallout, which will haunt us, perpetrators, victims, and bystanders, as well as heroic rescuers, for all our lives, and generations to come. We don’t want to know the truth, because we cannot bear to stare it in the face. Delusion helps to relieve our pain.

About the Author
Dr. Martin Wein taught history at New York University and Tel Aviv University. He is a former research student of US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt. Dr. Wein has published on Prague Zionism, on the secret Czechoslovak military role in the foundation of Israel in 1948, on "global comparative genocide," and on multi-religious relations in Europe and the Middle East, from the 19th century to the present.
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