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Don’t Trust the Gaza Health Ministry
Media outlets should be much more skeptical about the Hamas-run agency’s claims.
ON THE EVENING OF OCTOBER 17, Gaza’s Ministry of Health announced that an Israeli airstrike had killed at least 500 people at Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. News organizations broadcast the report, Muslims across the region erupted in outrage, Arab governments denounced Israel, and President Joe Biden had to abandon a planned meeting with Arab leaders.
Within hours, the story began to fall apart. Within two days, it was discredited. Multiple lines of evidence, including videos, photos, and satellite images, showed that the damage had been caused not by an Israeli airstrike, but by a botched rocket launch from Gaza.
There are plenty of lessons to draw from this journalistic debacle, but one is simple: Stop trusting the Gaza health ministry.
For years, news organizations have referred to the health ministry as though it were a medical authority, like the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control. They follow and cite its updates on Facebook, and they often quote its spokesman, Dr. Ashraf al-Qudra.
But if you read the ministry’s Facebook page, you’ll see that its bulletins are full of propaganda and reckless allegations.
The ministry’s first statement about the hospital explosion declared: “The occupation targets the Gaza Baptist Hospital.”1 Its second statement, posted an hour later, vowed, “The occupier cannot get away with his crime.” The next day, the ministry called the tragedy “the largest and most violent massacre committed by the criminal Israeli occupation.”
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This is standard language at the ministry. On its Facebook page, all Palestinian fatalities are called “martyrs” or “victims of Israeli aggression.” All Israeli strikes are “massacres against families” perpetrated “by the Israeli occupation.” And every death or injury, no matter how inadvertent, is described as “targeting.”
The rhetoric in these posts is so intense that I thought it might be automated mistranslation. But when the ministry does its own translations, in artfully designed infographics, it uses the same terms: “martyrs,” “Israeli aggression,” and family “massacres.”
Here’s a sample of the ministry’s statements during the current Israeli bombardment. (The Facebook page automatically generates English translations; we used Google and Safari to correct a few errors in the automated versions.)
October 10: “The brutal Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip continues brutally and deliberately committing crimes against humanity . . . indicating the decision of the Israeli occupation to carry out the genocide of more than two million citizens in the Gaza strip.”
October 15: “The crimes they commit against our people amount to ethnic cleansing.”
October 16: “Israeli attacks hurt the children of Gaza with treacherous attacks on their homes.”
October 18: “The successive massacres committed by the Israeli occupation are ethnic cleansing.”
October 23: “It is clear that the hand of the Israeli killer controls the mechanism of aid entry to serve its policy of deceiving the world and causing the loss of hospitals.”
On Thursday—apparently referring to recently deceased Palestinians—the ministry posted a one-line statement: “I swear to God, we smelled the smell of musk among the martyrs.” This seems to be an allusion to Islamic lore that the bodies of martyrs don’t decay and instead exude musk.
On a human level, you can understand why the people who issue these statements might speak in anger and hyperbole. Their cities are under fire. They’re dealing with death and suffering every day. On the ministry’s Facebook page, you can find pictures of doctors encountering their own dead loved ones. It’s gut-wrenching.
But the fury in the ministry’s statements doesn’t stop at terms like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” It also warps the ministry’s reporting of facts. For instance, on its official website and its Facebook page, the ministry routinely accuses Israel of “targeting” everyone and everything that’s ever been hit in a strike: hospitals, ambulances, medical staff, women, infants, and even a fetus. That’s a grave accusation, entailing not just harm but intent. But the ministry offers no evidence of intent.
THE BIGGER PROBLEM is the ministry’s tally of deaths and injuries. Its numbers are routinely cited in news reports as though they’re reliable. In 2014, during a previous Gaza conflict, the Associated Press explained: “The initial source of information about deaths in the war has been the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.” Dr. Al-Qudra—described as “the keeper of the statistics”—boasted, “All the world uses our numbers. We are the only source.”
At that time, the main question in dispute was how many of the dead were civilians, as opposed to Hamas combatants. The AP reported that al-Qudra “uses a very broad definition of civilians, saying the term applies to anyone who has not been claimed by one of the armed groups as a member.” In a statement quoted by the Washington Post, al-Qudra asserted: “They are all civilians. . . . All the dead in all the houses, in the mosques, in the cars, in fields and the facilities for the disabled.”
In the current Gaza war, the chief problem is the ministry’s fatality counts. On Tuesday, the Post defended its use of these numbers, explaining: “Many experts consider figures provided by the ministry reliable, given its access, sources and accuracy in past statements.” An official at Human Rights Watch told the paper, “Everyone uses the figures from the Gaza Health Ministry because those are generally proven to be reliable.”
Really? In the hospital incident, the ministry’s initial report claimed at least 500 deaths. That ballpark figure was consistent with the ministry’s story about what had happened—a big Israeli munition dropped on the hospital—but was never backed up by any presentation of evidence.
The next day, the ministry offered a more precise number: 471. But as news organizations and intelligence agencies got a closer look at the damage to the hospital—or, rather, the lack of damage, since the Gazan rocket had actually fallen in an adjacent parking lot—it became clear that the ministry’s number was implausible. A U.S. intelligence report, released on Thursday, assessed that the fatality count was “probably at the low end of the 100 to 300 spectrum.”
That’s still an awful toll. But if the ministry’s number was two or three times higher than the real number, you have to wonder what else the ministry is exaggerating. Many outlets, for example, quoted a previous claim by the ministry that nearly two-thirds of the people killed by Israeli strikes in the current Gaza war were children. It’s true that Gaza has a very high proportion of minors: 47 percent of its population is younger than 18. But to generate two-thirds of the fatalities among that 47 percent, you’d have to be more than twice as likely to kill children as to kill adults. Even if Israel were bombing indiscriminately, that’s far-fetched.
In the fog of war, it’s easy to get things wrong. Israel and the United States make mistakes, too. Israel, for instance, has repeatedly portrayed an Al Jazeera video clip, captured around the same time as the hospital explosion, as a glimpse of the rocket that hit the parking lot. But the Times, after a thorough analysis, concludes that the rocket in the video didn’t fall anywhere near the hospital.
What really undermines trust, however, is refusing to admit a mistake—or, worse, hiding evidence that you were wrong. On Thursday, well after the health ministry’s narrative had begun to unravel, it repeated its allegation that “The Israeli attack on the Al Ahli Baptist Hospital is a massacre,” with 471 “confirmed” deaths. On Saturday, as news organizations further debunked the original story, the ministry renewed its claim about “the targeting of Al-Ahly Baptist Hospital.”
On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the ministry, when pressed for evidence, had “declined to release further details about [the alleged] 471 victims, and all traces of the munition have seemingly vanished from the site of the blast, making it impossible to assess its provenance.” The paper added that “Hamas turned down requests by The Times to view any available evidence of the munition it said had struck the hospital, claiming that it had disintegrated beyond recognition.” A Hamas official told the Times: “The missile has dissolved like salt in the water.”
None of this has stopped major news organizations—the Times, the Post, the AP, Reuters, CNN, CBS, ABC, and many more—from continuing to report the ministry’s data and allegations. Sometimes these outlets mention that the ministry is under the control of Hamas; sometimes they don’t. On Sunday, ABC’s This Week described the incident as “a deadly hospital explosion in Gaza that left hundreds dead, according to Palestinian health officials—both sides blaming each other for the attack.” Viewers were left to imagine that the cause of the tragedy was unknown but that the fatality estimate, rendered by “health officials,” was probably sound.
Every civilian death in war is tragic. The deliberate slaughter of ordinary Israelis on October 7 was horrific. But the ongoing carnage in Gaza should haunt us, too, no matter what precautions Israel takes to avoid hitting noncombatants. We need to be reminded, day by day, how many people are dying. Just don’t count on Gaza’s health ministry to get the number—or the story—right.
The hospital, now under Episcopalian/Anglican management, was affiliated with the Southern Baptist denomination four decades ago, and is still sometimes referred to as “Baptist.”