Since the conflict escalated on October 7, the health ministry in Gaza – controlled by the Palestinian militants Hamas – has been issuing regular estimates on the growing death toll in the besieged territory.
The UN previously suggested death tolls from the ministry are usually accurate within four percentage points, according to Vox.
However, this operation stopped earlier in November, meaning there is currently no updated information on the extent of tragedy coming from the Gaza Strip.
The officials revealed on Tuesday that they cannot continue counting casualties because the health system in the territory is collapsing, and it’s too difficult to retrieve bodies from the war zone.
Israeli bulldozers and tanks prevent medics from retrieving those who have died out in the open across Gaza.
Phone and internet services have also dropped at some points amid the air strikes, making it harder to track and report the numbers for employees on the ground.
Many hospitals in the north of Gaza have also been shut down, so the health ministry cannot ascertain death certificates from each establishment to build up a death toll.
The health ministry left its HQ in Shifa hospital last week too, after Israeli forces began to raid it.
Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra told Associated Press: “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.”
The electronic database which combs through data from hospitals “is no longer able to count the names and tally the statistics”.
The spokesperson said the ministry is still trying to restart the programme since it shut down after November 10.
Health ministry official, Mehdat Abbas, also told AP: “No one has correct numbers, that’s not possible anymore.
“People are thrown in the streets. They’re under rubble. Who can count the bodies and release the death toll in a press conference?”
What is the last death toll?
The health ministry’s most recent death toll estimate of 11,078 was provided on November 10.
This number is still used by the UN’s humanitarian office as the last verified death toll from the war.
The Gaza health ministry said doctors’ estimates, airstrikes in built-up areas, and reports from grieving relatives lead them to think the death toll has shot up in the last week.
The Palestinian Authority – which runs the occupied West Bank and is a rival of Hamas – issued a very similar death toll to the Gaza officials for the first five weeks of the conflict.
But, even as Gaza officials announced that they can no longer count, the West Bank ministry continued to release estimates. The most recent suggested 13,300 people had died since war began, according to AP.
The UN says it cannot verify these numbers. Gaza officials are also not clear how the West Bank ministry was calculating its estimates.
The ministry then inexplicably stopped releasing its own stats on Tuesday.
Al-Qidra said the West Bank stats had been “personal statistics” and not linked to Gaza officials, while Abbas claimed: “If someone is sitting in an air-conditioned office, he can say whatever he wants. But if you come to the field here, no one can work between tanks to count how many people are killed.”
What has Israel said about Gaza’s estimated death toll?
Speaking to host Nick Robinson, Levy said: “Those are the numbers being produced by Hamas, the same terror organisation that on October 7 burned, beheaded, abducted babies and then lied about it. OK, so that is not a credible source.
“So if you are asking me what are the exact casualty numbers, Nick, I can’t tell you exactly how many Israelis were murdered in the October 7 massacre because we still have body bags of unidentifiable human remains.
“We are still counting the damage and working out the exact death toll.”
Earlier this month, Israel revised down the number of people believed to have been killed in the Hamas massacre of October 7.
Initially, it stated the militants had killed 1,400. Now, it believes around 1,200 have been killed.
Levy added: “We know that Hamas is exaggerating the numbers, you know that too. We also know that we’ve killed thousands of terrorists – a very large proportion of the total death toll.”
Gaza has not differentiated between the civilians killed and the potential Hamas militants.
Levy also had a similar argument with Today programme host Mishal Husain on Monday.
It’s worth noting US president Joe Biden also caused by outrage by querying the fatality numbers from the Gaza officials on October 25. He said: “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed.”
Why is the death toll so important?
It is always incredibly difficult to obtain a clear, rolling death toll during active war zones.
But, they are key political tolls which help influence public opinion – and can therefore have a serious consequence for the countries on the frontline.
“Public opinion in Berlin, London, Paris, and Washington matters a lot in terms of what political leaders will do,” Lawrence Gostin, of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law, told Vox.
He said it therefore can influence how much aid and support a country receives from allies.
On a practical level, it also helps guide where (and how much) humanitarian aid is needed in a war zone.
Shawan Jabarin, director of the Palestinian human rights group al-Haq, told AP clear data on the number of deaths was key for “history” and “accountability” and to teach the next generation what happened next.
“It’s important for transitional justice, for peace,” he said.