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Good morning, this is Michelle. Keeping track of casualties is tricky in conflict settings and any error – even in communication – can be easily exploited, as the latest controversy over Gaza’s death toll shows.

A historic agreement and the legacy of a pandemic that shook the world hangs in the balance. And the number of people forced to leave their homes behind last year shattered records yet again.

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Michelle Langrand


Straight from the Palais

Bringing you the latest from UN press briefings in Geneva.

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Palestinians search for missing people under the rubble of a destroyed building following an Israeli air strike in Al Nuseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, 14 May 2024. (Keystone/ EPA/Mohammed Saber)

🧮 MATH TROUBLE. The UN came under scrutiny recently after several media misreported that Gaza health authorities had shrunk the number of women and children killed since 7 October by half, prompting calls by the Israeli foreign minister for UN secretary general António Guterres to resign.

Two UN spokespersons rejected the claims before Geneva reporters yesterday and explained that the latest figures referred to people who had been identified out of the total estimated to have been killed.

Breakdown. On 6 May, the UN published estimates by Gaza authorities that 34,735 people had been killed in the war, including around 9,500 women and 14,500 children – 70 per cent of casualties. On 8 May, they said out of those estimates, 24,686 bodies had been identified, out of which 4,959 are women and 7,797 children – making up 52 per cent of the identified deceased. Additionally, 1,824 are elderly – or eight per cent. Referring to the significant drop in the share of women and children casualties from 70 per cent to 52 per cent, WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said that such revisions were a normal part of the difficult process of keeping count of casualties in conflict settings. He added that this didn’t take into account some 10,000 estimated to be trapped under the rubble.

Why it’s tricky. UN agencies rely on figures produced by the Hamas-run authorities in Gaza and say they cannot verify all of these given the circumstances. This has drawn criticism, with Israel accusing them of “parroting” Hamas’s manipulated figures, which it says downplays deaths among its ranks. But the UN has said they are reliable, and other organisations such as Human Rights Watch have said they correspond to their assessments of the number of casualties that can be expected from such levels of destruction.

🏥 REASON FOR HOPE. A group of Red Cross branches and the International Committee of the Red Cross announced they have opened a field hospital in Rafah with 60 beds to help cope with healthcare needs as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flee Israel’s ground assault in the eastern part of the city.

Foreign backing. Thirty staff from 11 Red Cross branches including from Switzerland, Canada, Japan, Iceland and Australia as well as from the local Palestinian Red Crescent have been deployed to tend to patients, according to an ICRC spokesperson. The announcement comes one day after a UN employee – the first foreign staff – was killed and another injured as their UN-marked vehicle travelled to the European Gaza Hospital near Rafah and Médecins sans Frontières announced it would halt care in another field hospital no longer safe due to Israel’s incursion.

💦 DISASTER AFTER DISASTER. Flash floods that have swept across northeastern Afghanistan over the last couple of days brought “widespread destruction, death and injury” in already vulnerable areas, killing and injuring around 540 people and destroying some 3,000 houses, according to a World Food Programme’s acting head for Afghanistan Timothy Anderson, who said some of the people affected were already struggling to feed themselves due to drought and harsh winter conditions. “With these erratic weather patterns, it's been disaster after disaster pounding communities back into destitution over and over again,” he said from Kabul.

✈️ TRAVEL LOG. The UN’s trade and development chief Rebecca Grynspan is headed to the Panama Canal at the end of the week as the major trade artery grapples with drought while demand grows. Grynspan is set to meet with crew, operators and local communities affected by the situation but can be also expected to highlight the increasing climate impacts on global trade, according to a spokesperson.

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