The Politics of Palestinian Demography
by Yakov Faitelson
Spring 2009, pp. 51-59
With every generation, it seems, a new demographic panic
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
The 30 percent population increase again caused renewed
demographic panic in
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
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 Authority.
The 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
In May 1948, only fifty years after Dubnow's projections,
the Jews in
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 community 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
These estimates could not be treated as prophecy, wrote Bachi, since the differences between reality 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. According 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 immigrants.
Fast-forward to 1971. Israel controlled the whole territory of the former British Mandate in Palestine, 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. Nevertheless, 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 population of
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 immigrant
population from the former
Amidst the 1987 Palestinian uprising against Israeli control
in the West Bank and
Putting aside the fact that the figures did not justify the
headlines proclaiming a Jewish minority, Sofer 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. Then, he presented the
forecast for the West Bank and Gaza Strip including
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
A Demographic Intifada
Palestinian Arab numbers have always been spotty. There is
very little historical data. As
Palestinian demography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has never been just a 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
In 1997, three years after the Oslo accords handed control of large portions of the West Bank and 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 Arab 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 excluded.
Even without contesting the professionalism of the count
itself, the Arab population stood, in fact, at only 2,360,231 people when the
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 grew by about one million people
from 1990 to 2000. By coincidence, this figure seemingly offsets the mass
It is difficult to see how the agricultural or industrial
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, the 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 to 3,952,354—an increase of 190,349 over the previous year, or more than 5 percent in a single 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 2.5 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 '
Then, in December 2006, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics issued a statement asserting that 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 years.
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 208,000 in
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." Indeed, 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 a 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, Sofer in 1987, DellaPergola in 2005, and the Palestinian bureau in 2005 and 2006.
Then, three months after this last Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics statement, DellaPergola once 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 is 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 the Palestinian Authority pads its population numbers, the Palestinian Authority receives more money.
Careful demographic analysis, however, should lead to a
conclusion in stark contrast to the demographic time bomb thesis. The natural
increase of the Jewish population in
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 Strip.  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 withdrawal program, 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
Yakov Faitelson is the author of Demographic Trends in the
 "Address by PM Ehud Olmert to the opening of the Knesset winter session," Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Oct. 8, 2007.
 The New York Times, Dec. 1, 2008.
 The International Herald Tribune (Paris), Feb. 9, 2008;
Associated Press, Feb. 9, 2008; "Zionists Have Lost the War,
 BBC News, Nov. 29, 2007.
 Shimon Dubnow, Pisma o Starom i Novom Evreistve (1897-1907) (St. Petersburg: Obshchestvennaia pol'za, 1907), pp. 171-2.
 Robero Bachi, Maskanot politiot metoch hakirotaj al hahitpathut hademografit shel ha'yehudim veha'arvim be'Eretz-Israel (Jerusalem: Hadasa, 1944).
 Ibid, Table no. 1, p. 2.
 Ibid., Table no. 3, p. 5.
 "Population Estimates and Sources of Its Growth," Israel Central Bureau of Statistics Yearbook for Israel 1996, no. 47, Table 27.01, p. 573; "The Population by Religion and Population Group," Israel Central Bureau of Statistics Yearbook for Israel 2006, no. 57, Table 02.01, p. 85.
 Roberto Bachi, Encyclopedia Ha'Ivrit, Ha'Ukhlusiya, vol. 6, 1956 ed., s.v. "a. demografia," p. 672.
 Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 9, s.v. "state of
 "Tahazit Ha'Ukhlusiya beIsrael ad 1985 (al basis sof 1965)," Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, Jerusalem, 1968, Table 2, p. 2, Table 10, p. 10, Table 11, p. 11.
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 Justin McCarthy, "
 "Census Final Results—Summary (Population, Housing Units, Buildings and Establishments)," Population, Housing, and Establishment Census – 1997 (Ramallah: Palestine National Authority, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 1998), "Table 1: Population by Sex and Governorate."
 McCarthy, "
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Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses, Revision 2,
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 Yakov Faitelson, "Mispar sheelot benose haba'aya hademographit," Dec. 8, 2003.
 McCarthy, "
 Hagai Segal, "The Demono-Graphic Problem: The Faitelson Riddle,'" BeSheva, Jan. 22, 2004.
 Bennett Zimmerman, Roberta Seid, and Michael L. Wise, "The Million Person Gap: A Critical Look at Palestinian Demography: Arab Population in the West Bank and Gaza," BESA Perspectives, no. 15, May 1, 2006; idem, "The 1.5 Million Population Gap," presentation at American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., Jan. 10, 2005.
 "Population 2005," Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health, Feb. 17, 2008; Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health Annual Report 2005, MOH-PHIC. Population and Demography. Health Status in Palestine 2005, Chapter 1, Demography and Population, Oct. 2006. All Palestinian Authority demographic and health annual reports from 2001 until November 2007 have been removed from the Palestinian Authority site after publication of comparisons by the author and by Bennet Zimmerman showing the differences between the data presented by the PCBS and the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health.
 "Table 1: Estimated Palestinian Population in the World by Reside [sic] Country, End Year 2006," Palestinians at the End of the Year 2006 (Ramallah: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 2006), p. 31.
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 "1. Demography, 1-1 Projection of Palestinians worldwide," Demographic and Socioeconomic Status of the Palestinian People at the End of 2006 (Ramallah: Palestinian National Authority, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Dec. 2006), p. 3.
 The International Herald Tribune, Feb. 9, 2008; Associated Press, Feb. 9, 2008.
 The International Herald Tribune, Feb. 9, 2008; Associated Press, Feb. 9, 2008.
 Associated Press, Feb. 9, 2008; Ynet.com, Feb. 9, 2008.
 The New York Times, Dec. 11, 1997.
 Arutz Sheva (Beit El and Petah Tikva), May 17, 2008.
 Roberto Bachi, quoted in Ezra Zohar, "Demographia – sakana kiyumit o mitus?" Nativ, Nov. 2004.
 "The Elements of the Conflict: A. Geographic and Demographic Factors, Population, (c) Future Trends," Official Records of the Second Session of the General Assembly, Supplement No. 11, Report to the General Assembly (Lake Success, N.Y.: U.N. Special Committee on Palestine, 1947), vol. 1, chap. II, p. 14.
 Roberto Bachi, "Tahazit Ha'Ukhlusiya be
 Pinkhas Sapir, quoted in Shmuel Fridman, "Al demographia ve kzavim," Ma'ariv (Tel Aviv), July 7, 1987.
 Yedi'ot Aharonot, July 6, 1987.
 DellaPergola, Tah Ofek seminar, July 19, 2008.
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 IsraelNationalNews.com (Arutz Sheva, Beit El and Petah Tikva), Oct. 5, 2007.
 Ma'ariv, June 11, 2007.
 Gottheil, "Arab Immigration into
 Arutz Sheva, July 2, 2007.
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