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The death toll from Israel's offensive in Gaza nears 20,000 people

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The death toll from Israel's offensive in Gaza is on the verge of passing 20,000 people. That's according to health officials in Gaza. To put it another way, according to them, almost 1% of the territory's entire population have been killed by Israeli forces in just 2 1/2 months. To talk more about this tragic milestone, we turn now to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who joins us from Tel Aviv. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I know that you've been talking to people who have lost loved ones in Gaza. What are they saying to you right now?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I'm going to give you an example. I was in the city of Ramallah earlier this week in the West Bank. I was actually working on a different story about economics, and I just - I stopped to ask this man a question. He was in his late 40s. His name is Yousef Es-Sakani. He's from Gaza. And as we were talking, he just told me that his - nearly his entire family was killed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City earlier this month. And this is how he put it.

YOUSEF ES-SAKANI: (Non-English language spoken).

LANGFITT: "Last Saturday, my wife and kids were killed," he tells me. "One son is under the rubble. Seven family members are dead - my wife, four daughters and two boys." And he said, Ailsa, that one of his sons was spared because he spent the night at an aunt's house.

ES-SAKANI: (Non-English language spoken).

LANGFITT: "One of the ones killed is my daughter," he added. "She had one semester left to graduate to become a doctor." And, Ailsa, looking at this guy, Es-Sakani - he's 47 years old - he had this expression which I guess I can only describe as a mix of stoicism and this kind of weary disbelief. And I should add, these stories are now commonplace.

CHANG: So commonplace. I do want to know, though, I mean, these numbers on the dead, they come from the Health Ministry in Gaza, and Gaza is, of course, controlled by Hamas. So how reliable do you think the death toll that they are giving us is?

LANGFITT: That's a good question. We can't independently verify them, but the United Nations and aid groups have found them to be pretty reliable in the past. Now, the way the Health Ministry works is they collect names of the dead from hospitals and morgues. They digitize it. But it's becoming harder with the attacks on hospitals and some of these telecom blackouts. Now, in Ramallah, I met Sari Bashi. In the past, she cofounded an Israeli human rights group. Now she's the program director at Human Rights Watch in charge of global research. And she actually says the death toll is probably - is almost certainly even higher than the official figures.

SARI BASHI: Any numbers you hear are unfortunately an undercount because we don't know how many bodies are underneath the rubble. And the civil defense force does not have equipment, and many areas are unreachable.

LANGFITT: And I should add, the health ministry in Gaza doesn't distinguish between civilians and combatants, but they do pay attention to age and gender. And they say about 70% of those killed are women and children.

CHANG: Well, given these extremely heavy casualties, can you talk about the pressure that Israel is under right now to change its tactics or to agree to a temporary cease-fire?

LANGFITT: There is pressure, of course. We've reported this. The U.N. General Assembly, human rights and aid groups have all been calling for a cease-fire. The U.S. has said it won't put a time limit on Israeli operations and says Israel does have the right to defend itself against Hamas. But the U.S. has repeatedly also told Israel to do more to protect civilians. And it also says that there are very serious talks going on right now about another pause in fighting like the one we had last month.

CHANG: It is worth remembering that the Israelis said they invaded Gaza to ensure Hamas could no longer pose a military threat or launch another attack like the one on October 7, which killed around 1,200 people. But, you know, given that overriding goal, what does the Israeli government say now about all these casualties in Gaza?

LANGFITT: Well, yeah, Ailsa, they accuse Hamas of exaggerating. And the Israelis say, for their part, they've killed 7,000 Hamas fighters. Now, it's not clear if that includes ones killed during October 7. And Israel does also say that Hamas is operating in hospitals, using tunnels under homes and effectively making civilians targets. By the way, I should mention that Hamas continues to fire rockets here into Israel, but the vast majority are intercepted.

Now, not too long ago, I was talking to this retired Israeli general. His name is Shlomo Brom, and he says that he thinks the Israeli forces are doing a good job. He says it's hard to avoid civilian casualties, especially when Hamas is embedded in the population. And Brom also says that he thinks Hamas sees casualties actually working for them. This is how he put it.

SHLOMO BROM: Not only they don't care about the population, they think that casualties contribute to their cause because that's how they can mobilize media, public opinion and world public opinion. And so...

CHANG: He's saying that the more casualties there are, the more Hamas believes they can mobilize the media and public opinion in their favor.

LANGFITT: Yeah, that's exactly the point. And for now, though, Israel continues to bomb. And I think we'll continue to see those horrific images of people being pulled from the rubble.

CHANG: That is NPR's Frank Langfitt in Tel Aviv. Thank you so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.