The Israeli ground operation in Gaza extended on Monday, as international calls for a cease-fire mounted and the death toll continued to increase. While Israel lost several soldiers in the last day, the number of those killed during the latest iteration of the war between Hamas and Israel has been disproportionate, with the vast majority of the dead being both Palestinian and civilian.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) publishes a daily snapshot of the crisis, pulling together the numbers from health officials in Gaza and reports from the various humanitarian organizations in the field. In their last report, which covered from July 19 -20, they noted that 3,008 Palestinians had been injured in the course of the fighting, “904 of whom are children and 533 women.” And at the time the report was published on Sunday, the number of those killed was 395: 375 on the Palestinian side “including 270 civilians, of whom 83 are children and 36 women” and 20 Israelis “including two civilians and 18 soldiers.”
But given the fast-pace of the situation on the ground, the reported number of deaths in the media frequently outpaces those in the official report. Health Ministry officials in Gaza raised the number of Palestinians killed in the two-weeks of fighting to 537 on Monday, a leap of more than 100 in the past day. At this point in the crisis, the United Nations says, 43 percent of Gaza is now “affected by evacuation warnings” or declared a “no-go area” and the number of civilians seeking shelter in UN-run schools shot up by 400 percent in teh last four days.
Several factors — including the advanced weaponry at Israel’s disposal, the concentrated population in Gaza, and the inability of Palestinians to flee far enough to be removed from danger — account for the disparity in the death tolls between the two sides. Even with those explanations, though, observers including Secretary of State John Kerry have scratched their heads about the high civilian tolls. Kerry was caught on-mic criticizing the Israeli operation’s rapidly rising casualty count, saying “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation.”
For some, the numbers of dead are suspect. “For Operation Protective Edge, the only data published so far comes from the health ministry in Gaza,” the Times of Israel’s diplomatic correspondent Raphael Ahren wrote, citing the Israeli Defense Forces’ spokesperson as saying the ministry is run by Hamas, therefore rendering the number of casualties and injuries it reports more than unreliable. “And yet, the figures from the Gazan ministry are routinely adopted, unquestioned, by the United Nations,” Ahren wrote.
The truth, however, is more complex than how the Times of Israel lays it out. The numbers the United Nations provides do come at least partially from the Gaza Health Ministry. But UNOCHA is composed of several humanitarian agencies working together in what are called “clusters” — groupings according to the function each organization serves. According to a footnote on the death toll in OCHA’s report, data “on fatalities and destruction of property is consolidated by the Protection and Shelter clusters based on preliminary information, and is subject to change based on further verifications.” Those clusters in Gaza include the Norwegian Refugee Council and UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
As for the Gaza Health Ministry itself, it is incorrect to say that is “Hamas-run.” Earlier this year, Hamas and the more moderate Fatah party reconciled after years of outright civil war, forming a “unity government” composed of technocrats instead of politicians. While for years Hamas did run the Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip, with the formation of the new government the West Bank’s Health Minister Jawad Awad took over for both portions of Palestinian territory. Unfortunately, Gazans aren’t exactly fans of their Health Minister. Last week, Awad entered Gaza through the border crossing with Egypt, where he was met with protesters throwing eggs and shoes at his car, according to the Maan newservice.
As the violence continues to rage on in the region, the international community has been vocal in the need for a halt in the conflict. Both sides have been called out for potential human rights violations. “Parties to conflict have responsibilities under international humanitarian law,” UNOCHA chief Valerie Amos said in a statement last week. “They must take precautions to protect civilians and must distinguish between civilian and military targets. This is the third major military confrontation in Gaza in six years, and civilians have borne the brunt each time. They are paying the price for a collective failure to break the cycle of violence and reach a lasting political solution.”
The international community is continuing to rally to press the sides for a lasting ceasefire. After an emergency meeting on Sunday night, the United Nations Security Council issued a call for an immediate ceasefire, though the call took the form of “elements to the press” rather than a binding resolution or statement issued under the name of the Council’s president. So far several short-term halts have come and gone, including several to allow humanitarian aid pass into Gaza. Secretary Kerry arrived in Cairo on Monday to help negoatiate the terms of a deal, but so far the Israeli government seems content to continue to expand the operation, originally determined only to destroy the network of tunnels that reach from Gaza into Israel, while Hamas seems more than happy to continue to launch rockets deep into Israeli territory.