Gaza health officials say they lost the ability to count dead as Israeli offensive intensifies

JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinian health officials in Gaza said Tuesday that they have lost the ability to count the dead because of the collapse of parts of the enclave's health system and the difficulty of retrieving bodies from areas overrun by Israeli tanks and troops.

The Health Ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza, which carefully tracked casualties over the first five weeks of war, gave its most recent death toll of 11,078 on Nov. 10. The United Nations humanitarian office, which cites the Health Ministry death toll in its regular reports, still refers to 11,078 as the last verified death toll from the war.

The challenges involved in verifying the number of dead have mounted as Israel's ground invasion has intensified and at times severed phone and internet service and sown chaos across the territory.

“Unfortunately, the Ministry of Health has not yet been able to issue its statistics because there is a breakdown in communication between hospitals and disruption to the internet,” ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra told The Associated Press. The electronic database that health authorities use to compile casualties from hospitals “is no longer able to count the names and tally the statistics," he said.

Al-Qidra said the ministry was trying to restart the program and resume communication with hospitals.

Medics say it's far too dangerous now to recover the untold scores of dead bodies in Gaza City, where Israeli bulldozers have blocked streets and tanks fire at anything in their path.

Officials at the Health Ministry, long seen as the most reliable local source for casualties, said they believe the death toll has jumped sharply in the past week based on doctors' estimates after airstrikes on densely populated neighborhoods and reports from families about missing loved ones. But they said it had become virtually impossible to arrive at a precise number of victims.

“No one has correct numbers, that’s not possible anymore,” Health Ministry official Mehdat Abbas said. “People are thrown in the streets. They’re under the rubble. Who can count the bodies and release the death toll in a press conference?”

Abbas' comments appeared to be a dig at the Health Ministry in the occupied West Bank, where the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, a rival of Hamas, administers autonomous enclaves.

The West Bank ministry in Ramallah gave similar casualty counts to its counterpart in Gaza over the first five weeks of war. But after the Gaza ministry stopped counting, health authorities in Ramallah kept releasing regular reports with death tolls — most recently 13,300 — without discussing their methodology. U.N. agencies said they could not verify the West Bank ministry's numbers.

The Health Ministry in the West Bank stopped providing its own count Tuesday without giving a reason. Because of that, and because officials there declined to explain in detail how they tracked deaths after Nov. 11, the AP decided to stop reporting the West Bank count.

Authorities in Gaza said they could not account for how the West Bank’s Health Ministry tallied the numbers. Al-Qidra described the figures released by the Ramallah-based ministry as “personal statistics” unrelated to Gaza's ministry.

“If someone is sitting in an air-conditioned office, he can say whatever he wants,” Abbas said. "But if you come to the field here, no one can work between tanks to count how many people are killed.”

Last week, the Health Ministry in Gaza vacated its headquarters in Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, as Israeli forces besieged and raided the facility, which they accuse Hamas of using to conduct militant operations. Hamas and health officials have denied the allegations.

Employees responsible for tallying the dead have been scattered across the southern Gaza Strip and struggle to coordinate with each other and with hospitals due to frequent communication outages.

Every hospital in the northern strip has shut down except for the Awda Hospital, a private facility in the urban refugee camp of Jabaliya, just north of Gaza City, where doctors conduct surgery with flashlights and treat patients on blood-slicked floors.

“It's chaos. There are bombs all around us, air attacks, tank attacks, snipers and gunshots,” said hospital Director Ahmad Muhanna. “We are trying to keep the best estimates we can, but with each second, more patients come and it gets harder.”

In many cases now, death certificates are nonexistent, he said.

Without a clear tally of the deaths, advocates worry that the conflict will grind on without accountability. They say the numbers matter because they can have a direct impact on policy and the global sense of urgency.

“We have to get these numbers for history,” said Shawan Jabarin, director of the Palestinian human rights group al-Haq. “The accountability is one thing and to teach the next generations exactly what happened. It's important for transitional justice, for peace.”


Associated Press Writer Jack Jeffery in Cairo contributed to this report.