Politics of Palestinian Demography*
With every generation,
it seems, a new demographic panic strikes Israel. Opening the Israeli Knesset
(parliament) on October 8, 2007, after the Jewish New Year, Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert warned of "a demographic battle, drowned in blood and tears,"
if Israel did not make territorial concessions.
new administration in Washington seeks to revive
the peace process, the demographic question has again
moved front and center. Citing Israel's eroding
demographic position, New York Times columnist Roger
Cohen urged Secretary of State-designate Hillary
Clinton to try "tough love" to force Israeli
Proponents of the argument that demography mandates concessions might be
they get the science wrong. Not only does demography
not show an imminent Jewish minority in Israel,
but even a cursory look at Palestinian numbers
shows just how false and politically motivated recent
Palestinian surveys are.
On February 9, 2008,
Luay Shabaneh, the new president of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics
(PCBS), published the results of a December 2007 Palestinian Authority
population census. According
to the new data, since 1997, the Arab population
has increased to 1,460,000 in the Gaza Strip and
2,300,000 in the West Bank (including 208,000
in East Jerusalem) to a total of 3,760,000 people—an
increase of 30 percent in one decade. East Jerusalem
is under Israel's administration, but the Palestinian Authority nevertheless
counts its Arab population as part of the territory it administers. Thus,
Jerusalem Arabs are double-counted: once as part
of the Arab population of Israel, and again as a part
of the population of the Palestinian Authority.
The 30 percent population
increase again caused renewed demographic panic in Israel. According to
BBC news report, Israeli prime minister Ehud
Olmert said that failure to negotiate a two-state solution
with the Palestinians would bring the end of
the State of Israel.
But unlike what had
happened during previous demographic panics, Israeli experts began to raise
serious questions about the accuracy of the census.
Such questions had been a long time in coming: Most
of the middle- and long-term demographic forecasts
for Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip -
formulated by demographers over the last 110
years - have turned out to be unsound, often dramatically
so. This is due to the fact that long-term military,
political, economic, and social changes in the region particularly, and
in the world in general, cannot be accurately predicted; what is presented
with a patina
of scientific legitimacy is often simply someone's
best guess. Added to this problem is a more
troublesome one: Population statistics and birth
rates play such an important role in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict - from the way that foreign aid is allocated
to Israel's decision to hold or relinquish territory -
that those attempting to manipulate the perceptions
of both the public and policymakers are irresistibly
drawn to the field.
Those who questioned
the new Palestinian census were correct: The Palestinian Central Bureau
of Statistics' demographic data arrived at its
data not through objective scientific inquiry but rather by
overstating the size of the Arab population residing
in the territories administered by the Palestinian
History of Demographic Forecasts
In a March 1898 letter,
the famous Jewish historian, Simon Dubnow, criticized Zionist ideas, writing,
During seventeen years of tense work to encourage
substantial emigration, after the expense of vast
means and with the help of millions donated by
Rothschild, we managed to place on the land of Palestine
only about 3,600 settlers, which makes up approximately
211 people per year. Let us allow that the
Western Zionist committees will work with significantly
larger capitals and energy and will move to
Palestine not two hundred, but one thousand settlers
annually … then in a hundred years the Jewish
population of Palestine will reach one hundred
thousand men. Let's increase this number five times and
add to this the natural increase and inflow of
the industrial population to the cities, then we shall receive
about a half million Jews in Palestine after
one hundred years … Certainly, all of us treasure the hope
to see at the beginning of the twenty-first century
about a half-million of our brothers living in our ancient homeland, but
can it solve the problem of 10 millions Jews, who are dispersed?
In May 1948, only fifty
years after Dubnow's projections, the Jews in Palestine already numbered
Such mistaken projections,
however, have been the rule rather than the exception. At the end of
1944, Roberto Bachi presented to the Jewish National
Council, the main institution of the Jewish
during the British Mandate, a secret demographic
report that included four forecasts:
optimistic and pessimistic, and with Jewish immigration as a variable.
Bachi based his forecasts on the existing
demographic data for 1938-42 and on estimates
of trends that could be accepted as reasonable. He
assumed that Arab fertility for the ensuing sixty
years would continue to be very high (seven children or
more per woman) or that it would decrease only
slightly (six children per woman). He also assumed that
Jewish fertility would remain at about two children
per woman but might increase slightly to three children
per woman. He also predicted that Jewish immigration
might bring about one million Jews to Israel during
the five to fifteen years starting from 1946.
These estimates could
not be treated as prophecy, wrote Bachi, since the differences between
and forecast increase as the projected time period
lengthens. According to Bachi's pessimistic scenario,
by 1971, the population of Palestine would include
2,467,000 Arabs and 604,000 Jews without Jewish immigration
or 1,695,000 Jews should there have been one million Jewish immigrants.
to Bachi's more optimistic forecasts, the population
of Palestine in the same year could consist of
2,186,000 Arabs and 698,000 Jews without immigration
or 1,898,000 Jews with a million Jewish
Fast-forward to 1971.
Israel controlled the whole territory of the former British Mandate in
and 2,662,000 Jews already lived in Israel -
about half a million more than in Bachi's most optimistic
projection. The Arab population stood at 1,460,000,
about one million fewer than he had predicted.
Then in 1972, Bachi predicted, as he had in 1956,
that immigration to Israel would stop as the Jews
of the West were indifferent and the Jews of
the Soviet Union were forever trapped.
over the next seven years, more than a quarter
million Jews migrated to Israel.
His projections for
2001 were similarly off-base: According to the pessimistic forecast, the
of Palestine in 2001 would comprise 5,871,000
Arabs and 563,000 Jews without immigration or
1,580,000 Jews with a million Jewish immigrants.
Following his optimistic forecast, the population of
Palestine in 2001 should have been 4,415,000
Arabs and 831,000 Jews without immigration or
2,258,000 Jews with a million Jewish immigrants.
The reality was quite
different. The Jewish population reached 5,025,010, nine times more than
his pessimistic projection, and 2.2 times more than his most optimistic
forecast. When combined with the i
mmigrant population from the former Soviet Union,
the total comprised 5,281,300 people.
Arab population reached 3,570,000, some 1,300,000,
or 39 percent less than Bachi's projection for
Israel's Central Bureau
of Statistics forecast in 1968 that, by 1985, the Jewish population would
to 2,923,000, and the Arab population would rise
to 49 percent of Israel's total population.
there were 3,517,200 Jews in 1985, representing
62.7 percent of the total population.
Amidst the 1987 Palestinian
uprising against Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza, demographic
predictions - no matter how sloppy - became the stuff of headlines. In
1987, the Israeli newspaper
Yedi'ot Aharanot quoted Arnon Sofer's bombshell
forecast: "In the year 2000, Israel will become non-Jewish."
The New York Times' Thomas Friedman picked up Sofer's prediction and ran
in an 1800-word, page one story.
Sofer claimed that by 2000 there would be "4.2 million Jews
versus 3.5 million non-Jews. The 3.5 million
Arabs would include: 1.2 million Israeli Arabs within the Green Line, one
million Arabs in the Gaza Strip, and between 1.1 and 1.5 million in the
Sofer's tally indicated for 2000 a range of between
2.1 to 2.5 million Arabs in the Palestinian territories.
Putting aside the fact
that the figures did not justify the headlines proclaiming a Jewish minority,
actually miscalculated the Arab population twice:
First, by using the 1986 Central Bureau of Statistics
forecast made for 2002 for all Arabs - defined
officially as citizens and permanent residents of the State
of Israel, including East Jerusalem and the Golan
Heights - as the Arab population of Israel only "within
the Green Line," i.e., exclusive of East Jerusalem
and the Golan Heights; and, second, by folding the Arab population of East
Jerusalem into the forecast of the Arab population in the Palestinian territories.
he presented the forecast for the West Bank and
Gaza Strip including East Jerusalem, as it was usually
done by the U.N., CIA, and Palestinian sources.
In effect, this results in double counting the East
Jerusalem population, first as permanent residents
of the State of Israel and then as the residents of
A month later, Sofer
explained his forecast: "Without even considering birth rates, to make
up one percentage point today, we need an additional 170,000 Jews ...Who
among us really expects that sort of
aliya (migration to Israel) in the near future?"
Two years later, though, just such a migration occurred, underlining the
inability of the demographers to forecast political developments. Over
the ensuing decade,
more than one million Jews were repatriated to
Israel from the former Soviet Union. Including mixed
Jewish families, this wave of immigration totaled
1.2 million people and increased Israel's Jewish
population by 31 percent. Demographic prediction
is such an uncertain science that even Israeli
specialists get it wrong repeatedly.
A Demographic Intifada
Palestinian Arab numbers
have always been spotty. There is very little historical data. As University
of Illinois economics professor Fred M. Gottheil
of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has never been just
matter of numbers. It has always been - and consciously
so - a frontline weapon used in a life-and-death struggle for nationhood
… The problem with staking so much on so narrow a focus as past demography
is that the data generated by demographers and
others since the early nineteenth century are so lacking in precision that,
in some matters of dispute concerning demography, "anyone's guess," as
the saying goes,
"is as good as any other."
Justin McCarthy, a University
of Louisville historian with a specialization in demography, notes that
Israel's 1967 census of Gaza's population was
the first in more than thirty-five years; before that census, procedures
were not rigorous. At best, McCarthy notes, pre-1967 counts of Palestinian
"estimations" although he also notes that subsequent
Israeli-conducted censuses were scientific and objective.
In 1997, three years
after the Oslo accords handed control of large portions of the West Bank
Gaza to the Palestine Authority, the Palestinians
conducted their first independent census, according to
which the Arab population numbered 2,895,683
people: 1,873,476 in the West Bank (including
210,209 in East Jerusalem) and 1,022,207 in the
Gaza Strip. It also included 325,253
emigrants contradicting international standards
regarding the enlistment of only permanent residents in the population
registry. According to the "U.N.
Principles and Recommendations for Population and
Housing Censuses," people to be enumerated by
the census are defined as "usual residents":
Usual residents may
have citizenship or not, and they may also include undocumented persons,
applicants for asylum, or refugees. Usual residents
then may include foreigners who reside, or intend to
reside, in the country continuously for either
most of the last 12 months or for 12 months or more,
depending on the definition of place of usual
residence that is adopted by the country. Persons who may consider themselves
usual residents of a country because of citizenship or family ties, but
are absent from
the country for either most of the last 12 months,
or for 12 months or more, depending on the definition adopted, should be
Even without contesting
the professionalism of the count itself, the Arab population stood, in
only 2,360,231 people when the East Jerusalem
and emigrant Arabs are subtracted.
Yet the numbers of the
Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics themselves seem improbably high.
According to data released by the Israeli census
bureau at the end of 1993, the Arab population
numbered 1,084,400 in the West Bank and 748,400
in the Gaza Strip, for a total of 1,832,800.
If the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics census was accurate, the
Arab population in the Palestinian
territories increased by an astonishing 527,431
people, or 29 percent, in only four years. In order to reach
such phenomenal population growth, the geometrical
mean of the annual growth rate would have to be an improbable 6.6 percent
per year during this period.
U.N. data for 2006 indicate
that the natural growth of the Arab population in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip was much smaller: an annual average of
3.89 percent per year between 1990 and 1995, 3.7 percent between 1995 and
2000, and 3.56 percent per year between 2000 and 2005.
Even these U.N.
estimates may be high, as they accepted Palestinian
Central Bureau of Statistics data uncritically.
In contrast, a 2003
study conducted by this author demonstrated that the Palestinian population
by about one million people from 1990 to 2000.
By coincidence, this figure seemingly offsets the
mass immigration to Israel from the former Soviet
Union during the 1990s. The study found that
Palestinian data suggested that the Arab population
had doubled and that the Palestinian Arab population nominal growth was
actually larger than the Jewish population growth at the time of the migration
Soviet Jews to Israel. Given the strain and management
problem that a population growth of 31.2 percent represented for Israel,
it defies logic that Palestinian growth could double without outside observers
noticing. As McCarthy noted, It is difficult
to see how the agricultural or industrial base of Palestine can
cope with the increased numbers that will result
from high Palestinian fertility … Possessing neither the agricultural potential
nor the economic base … Palestine can expect a demographic crisis.
This study prompted
Haggai Segal, an Israel-based Ma'ariv, Makor Rishon, and BeSheva columnist,
journalist, and commentator, to undertake additional investigation on this
subject, which he published in BeSheva.
In 2005, an American
and Israeli demography team headed by Bennett Zimmerman and Yoram
Ettinger confirmed the 2003 findings and, again,
criticized both the illegitimate inclusion of Arab emigrants
from the Palestinian Authority and the double
counting of the East Jerusalem Arab population.
The Zimmerman and Ettinger study also revealed that, at the end of 2000,
the Arab population in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip numbered 2,246,000 people
- 1,280,000 in the West Bank and about 966,000 in
the Gaza Strip.
According to the data
provided by the Palestinian Authority at the end of 2005, in contrast,
population in the territories numbered 3,762,005
- 2,372,216 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and 1,389,789 in the Gaza
Strip. The Palestinian numbers
get even stranger: According to estimates by
the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics,
in 2006, the population of the Palestinian Authority jumped
an increase of 190,349 over the previous year, or more than 5 percent in
year. Not only is this improbable but, according
to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, the rates of natural population
growth were half of this: 2.4 percent in 2003, 2.6 percent in 2004, and
percent in 2005.
In February 2005, the
Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics released a study conducted by
Yousef Ibrahim, a professor of geography and population studies at al-Aqsa
University in Gaza, which said that
the Arab population would reach 6.3 million in
2010, compared to 5.7 million Jews, provided that the
current growth ratios continued along the same
pattern, consciously utilizing
the words of Israeli demographic expert Sergio DellaPergola, who said that
"the direction is quite obvious. Before the end of
this decade, Jews will become a minority in the
lands that include 'Israel,' West Bank and Gaza
The Atlantic, a widely read American monthly, asked shrilly, "Will Israel
Live to 100?"
Then, in December 2006,
the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics issued a statement asserting
a "population dichotomy at 5.7 million is expected
at the end of 2010," i.e., that in 2010 the number of Palestinian would
be equal to the number of the Jews,
a discrepancy of 600,000 in less than two
In February 2008, the
Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistic, using data from the Palestinian
Authority's December 2007 census,
found that the population of the Palestinian Authority reached 3,760,000
people: 1,460,000 in the Gaza Strip and 2,300,000 in the West Bank, including
East Jerusalem, an increase of 30 percent from
1997. But, according to these data, the population in East Jerusalem is
2,209 less than it was in 1997. This report provoked harsh criticism from
Authority, which demanded that these "distortions"
be "corrected." Hatem Abdel Kader,
on Jerusalem affairs to Palestinian prime minister
Salam Fayyad, said he did not believe the Jerusalem
figures were reliable and that the Palestinian
Authority believed that census takers had failed to visit
Once again, by coincidence,
the results of the population census for the end of 2007 were almost
identical to the estimates of the Palestinian
Authority at the end of 2005. What happened to the 192,354
people that existed according to the estimates
of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics at the end of
2006? Two answers are possible: During 2007,
there was a massive emigration of Arabs from the
Palestinian territories, unprecedented since
the Six-Day War, and the results were registered in the
population census; or this was a crude manipulation
of the data and estimates of the Palestinian Central
Bureau of Statistics, especially the gaps in
their data for 2005 and 2006. The latter is more plausible. As
Hassan Abu Libdeh, director of the Palestinian
Central Bureau of Statistics in the 1990s, told The New
York Times, "In my opinion, [the data] is as
important as the intifada. It is a civil intifada."
such an attitude explains why the Palestinian
Authority's Ministry of Health has erased from their Internet
site official reports containing demographic
data since 2000, which might contradict the Palestinian
leadership's current line.
The 2007 census clearly
shows that the yearly growth rate of the Arab population, according to
calculation of the annual geometric mean over
the last ten years, should have been 2.66 percent. By
extending this 10-year period to fourteen years,
and basing calculations on the data of the Israeli census
bureau for the population of the Palestinian
territories for the end of 1993, the population of these areas
should, in fact, stand at 2,646,871 - 1,113,129
fewer than the 2007 Palestinian census. The difference
between the likely actual Palestinian population
and the results of the two Palestinian censuses (1997
and 2007) is probably around one million people,
just as the Zimmerman and Ettinger study showed four
years ago. The major data distortion was made
in 1997, and then the overstated population number
became the basis for the future estimates.
On May 15, 2008, Palestinian
Central Bureau of Statistics president Luay Shabaneh claimed that the
Arab population in Palestine would become equal
to the Jewish population by 2016,
echoing similar predictions of an impending Jewish minority by earlier
generations of demographers and analysts: Bachi in 1944,
Patrick Loftus in 1947, Bachi again
in 1968, Pinkhas Sapir in 1973,
DellaPergola in 2005, and the Palestinian bureau in 2005 and 2006.
Then, three months after
this last Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics statement, DellaPergola
again postponed his previous projection of Arab
and Jewish populations reaching equality from 2010 to 2020.
From DellaPergola's statement, it seems that the gap of one million persons
could be closed in
ten years, making necessary an additional annual
yearly increase of 100,000 Arabs, more than double the current numbers.
But, far from doubling, Arab fertility and natural increase are decreasing
following the demographic transition rules.
Why fudge the numbers?
There are two important reasons: First, overstating the Palestinian population
good for Palestinian morale, bad for Israeli
morale, and heightens Jewish fears of the so-called
"demographic time bomb"; second, there is a significant
financial incentive, as the international community provides money to the
Palestinian Authority according to the number of its inhabitants. When
Palestinian Authority pads its population numbers,
the Palestinian Authority receives more money.
analysis, however, should lead to a conclusion in stark contrast to the
demographic time bomb thesis. The natural increase
of the Jewish population in Israel—that is, its yearly
birth rate less its yearly death rate—stabilized
thirty years ago and, since 2002, has even begun to grow.
The natural increase of the total Arab population,
comprising both Israeli Arabs and the Arabs of the
West Bank and Gaza, continues to descend toward
convergence with the Jewish population, probably in
the latter half of this century.
The data, moreover,
point to rising levels of Arab emigration, particularly among young people.
According to the survey conducted by Bir-Zeit
University, 32 percent of all Palestinians and 44 percent of Palestinian
youth would emigrate if they could.
The official Palestinian newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida
has reported similar numbers.
A public opinion poll conducted by the Near East Consulting
Corporation in the Gaza Strip reveals an even
higher rate - 47 percent of all Palestinians in the Gaza
Translated into numbers of people, as of 2006, more than a million Arabs
in the Palestinian
territories wish to emigrate. As journalist Amit
Cohen noted in 2007, "Close to 14,000 Palestinians, more
than 1 percent of the population in the Strip,
have left the Gaza Strip since the implementation of the
largely for financial reasons.
In an interview reported in the pan-Arab daily
Asharq al-Awsat around the same time, Salam Fayyad,
head of the Emergency Palestinian Government,
commented: "How will we be able to deal with the
problem of 40,000 to 50,000 Palestinians who
have emigrated and many more that are not emigrating
just because they do not have the means? We are
losing in this respect."
The misuse of demography
has been one of the most prominent, yet unexamined, aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. Many Israelis have so thoroughly absorbed the repeated claims
of a diminishing Jewish majority that they do not consider whether their
conventional wisdom is false. Before an accurate demographic picture of
Israel and the Palestinian territories trickles down to the consciousness
residents of the region, it must first be understood
by Israeli and Palestinian policymakers, academics,
and journalists, who need accurate, factual information
to do their jobs. The impact on the conflict of such
a development would be substantial.
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* Is published: http://www.meforum.org/2124/the-politics-of-palestinian-demography