KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip – Squatting in the rubble, his briefcase perched atop his knees, the human rights researcher interviewed residents of a house shelled by Israel as he compiled a list of Gazans killed and wounded during Israel's offensive against Hamas.
Yasser Abdel Ghafar's work is part of a painstaking endeavor by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights to count the casualties of the 23-day war. The group released a final tally Wednesday, saying 1,284 Gazans were killed and 4,336 wounded, the vast majority civilians.
Israel has accused Hamas of inflating the civilian casualties, saying it has the names of more than 700 Hamas militants killed in the fighting.
The two sides disagree on the death toll, particularly the ratio of combatants and civilians.
On Wednesday, fieldworker Abdel Ghafar worked to uncover the circumstances of how one family lost its home and two relatives.
As family members and neighbors sat on plastic chairs in an alley nearby, Abdel Ghafar spoke quietly to 28-year-old Rami Najar, who was in the three-story house in Khan Younis close to Israel's border when it came under fire last week.
His 75-year-old grandfather Khalil Najar and the elderly man's 7-year-old granddaughter, Alla, were killed in the attack, which reduced the house to rubble.
"Were there any armed men near the house?" Abdel Ghafar asked at one point. No, he didn't see any, said Rami Najar, whose right leg was wounded in the shelling.
Using his briefcase as a writing table, the researcher took down the survivor's story as the two sat on a huge chunk of concrete.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights has been publishing daily death toll updates with names, ages and whether the victims were civilians or combatants on its Web site since the beginning of the war, and expects to present the final list in several days.
The group said 894 of the dead were civilians, including 280 children and minors 17 and under, as well as 111 women.
The remaining 390 dead were members of Hamas or other militant groups. They included 167 civil police, many of them killed on the job, and 223 fighters, said Ibtissam Zakout, head of the group's research team. That figure is higher than the 158 dead fighters acknowledged by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups.
"Maybe they (the militants) were interested to show that they have fewer losses and casualties," said Zakout.
Others, including Gaza Health Ministry official, Dr. Moawiya Hassanain, have raised the possibility the militants buried some of their fighters in secret, without reporting their deaths.
Hassanain has kept a running list of casualty tolls since the start of the Dec. 27 fighting. He writes his tallies on lose sheets of paper, some stuffed in his coat pockets, and later feeds them into a computer data base.
The doctor, who says he's not affiliated with Hamas or any other Palestinian faction, works out of a tiny room with furniture he said dates back to pre-1967 Egyptian rule of Gaza. Equipped with just a beeper, a fax, a landline, two cell phones and a walkie-talkie, Hassanain dispatches dozens of ambulances and records the medics' first reports of casualties. In between, he accompanies ambulances taking the most seriously wounded to Israel and Egypt.
The ministry, like most Gaza government agencies, is run by Hamas. Israeli warplanes targeted many Hamas ministries during the war, and the Health Ministry moved part of its operations to Gaza's main Shifa Hospital after the start of the offensive.
The ministry's computer center is fed by faxed reports sent by teams deployed at Gaza's 20 hospitals and clinics, said statistics chief Dr. Samir Radi, who did part of his physician's training at an Israeli hospital.
The Health Ministry's final toll is 1,324 dead and 5,400 wounded — or 40 more dead and about 1,000 more injured than the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
Radi said names are added to the death toll only after careful consideration, including identification by relatives, particularly if bodies arrive in a dismembered state. For example, he said, one dismembered body of a child was identified by his parents, who recognized recent surgery on his foot.
The physician claimed that only about 100 of the dead were combatants, saying he relied on reports by the militant groups themselves.
Asked about the discrepancies in casualty tolls, Zakout said she believes there has been some inadvertent double-counting at the ministry, an outcome of the chaos of the war. Also, the ministry includes psychological trauma cases as war injuries, while the rights group does not.
Zakout said the Palestinian Center for Human Rights count is based on cross-checking hospital records, interviews with survivors and visits to attack sites. The group is affiliated with Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists and has won two European human rights awards.
Israel has not provided a detailed death toll, though Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he believes dead militants outnumber dead civilians.
"Many more than 700 Hamas men were killed, many more," he told Israel's Channel 10 TV. "We know their names," he added while noting that civilians were hit as well.
Barak said Hamas fighters fired rockets from civilian areas and stored explosives in mosques and schools. He acknowledged, however, that troops "moved forward with fire" to prevent Israeli casualties, adding that "nobody had any illusions that civilians wouldn't be harmed as well."
Field worker Abdel Ghafar said for him, the hard work is just beginning. In his district, the southern city of Khan Younis, he has counted 83 deaths. Initial questioning determined that 61 were civilians, 13 policemen and nine gunmen, he said. Of the militants, five were from Hamas and four from Islamic Jihad.