Voodoo Demographics

By Roberta Seid, Michael L. Wise, Bennett Zimmerman

Why the Palestinians radically inflate their population figures—and what this means for the future of the Middle East.


Demography has always been a driving force in the 120-year-old Arab-Jewish conflict. Indeed, modern Zionism’s dream of restoring the Jewish nation to its ancestral homeland seemed feasible in part because the region was then so sparsely populated. When modern aliya, or Jewish immigration, began in 1880, fewer than 500,000 people lived in the corner of the Ottoman Empire that would become the Palestine Mandate. And while the mix of ethnic groups collectively referred to as Arabs, or “Orientals,” formed the bulk of the Mandate’s population at the time, Jews were already the majority in Jerusalem. With the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and the waves of immigration that followed, Jews indeed quickly became the majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Today, however, many believe that the demographic pendulum is swinging the other way. A “demographic time bomb” is ticking, it is said, in which Arabs will soon outnumber Jews in the areas under Israel’s control. Indeed, when the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) reported 2004 population of 3.83 million is added to the 1.3 million Israeli Arabs, the new total—5.1 million Arabs—rapidly approaches parity with Israel’s 5.5 million Jews. This number, coupled with PA claims to the world’s highest growth rate and a high Israeli Arab birthrate, as well, has led to the widely held conviction that the Jews will soon become a minority west of the Jordan River—and that the idea of a Jewish state with an enduring Jewish majority will be severely undermined.
This perception of the region’s demographic situation has had a profound effect on recent Arab and Israeli strategies vis-à-vis the determination of Israel’s final borders. Historically, it has been in the minority’s interest to accept the partition of territory, while the majority lays claim to the entire land. Accordingly, the Jewish minority during the Mandate period acquiesced to the excision of three-fourths of the Mandate to create the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan in 1922, and, after the Arabs had persuaded the British to limit Jewish immigration to restricted areas in the remainder of Palestine, agreed to the 1937 and 1947 partition proposals. In contrast, the Mandate’s Arab majority all along demanded a one-state solution. Only in 1988, after the Arabs had become the clear regional minority, did the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership finally acquiesce, at least provisionally, to a two-state solution.
Today, the existential threat posed to the State of Israel by the specter of an Arab majority has resulted in a decisive policy shift on the part of the Jews. Portraying the high growth forecasts for the Palestinian and Israeli Arab populations as an inexorable force of nature poised to engulf Israel and doom the Zionist enterprise, then-Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned in 2003 that “Above all hovers the cloud of demographics. It will come down on us not in the end of days, but in just another few years.”1 Also in 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Likud Central Committee, “The idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation… is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy.”2 Today, while both Prime Minister Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni maintain that Israel has historic and security rights to the West Bank, they are nonetheless committed to further unilateral disengagement, couching their argument less in terms of Palestinian rights than basing it on demographic grounds.
For their part, the Palestinians have consistently seen the demographic time bomb as a weapon guaranteeing Palestinian victory in the century-long struggle with the Jews. Alongside the claim of Palestinian rights, it is the belief in the eventual Arab demographic dominance that has continued to sustain the Palestinian will to fight at a time when much of the Arab world has reconciled itself to Israel’s existence. “The womb of the Palestinian woman,” Yasser Arafat was fond of saying, “will defeat the Zionists.”
These deep-rooted assumptions about a demographic time bomb, however, are wrong. A careful review of the data behind these forecasts reveals that Israel does not, in fact, face an imminent demographic threat from any combination of Arab population groups. Rather, the source of much of Israel’s anxiety may be traced to inaccurate numbers issued by the Palestinian Authority and taken for granted by the rest of the world—numbers that paint a very different picture.
In The Million Person Gap: The Arab Population in the West Bank and Gaza, we undertook an exhaustive investigation of the sourcing and methodology of the PA’s numbers as compared to other records issued by Palestinian and Israeli agencies.3 These records, when carefully corroborated against each other, suggest that the mid-year 2004 population in Gaza and the West Bank was 2.49 million, and not, as reported by the PA, 3.83 million. This gap of 1.34 million persons—an artificial inflation of more than 50 percent—can be traced to the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), which conducted its only census in 1997, and has since used those results to develop a forecast for each year from 1998 to 2015. It is, in fact, these predictions that the PA has released each year as its population size, although they have never been adjusted to account for actual, changing demographic events.
How is this possible? The million-person gap stems from two major flaws in accounting: First, in the PCBS’s method of establishing the Palestinian Arab population base when it first began counting the population; and second, the PCBS’s method of predicting birth, emigration, and immigration rates among the relevant Arab groups, on the basis of which the current data was determined. These errors began when, as part of the implementation of the 1993 Oslo accords, responsibility for tracking demographics was transferred from the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS) to the PCBS. In 1997, the PCBS reported an astonishing 648,000-person increase in the Arab Palestinian population—about 30 percent—over the number reported internally by the ICBS the previous year.4 How did the PCBS find so many new people? The answer is simple, and telling. First, the PCBS counted the 210,000 Jerusalem Arab residents that were already counted in Israel’s population surveys. Although the Palestinian Authority seeks to incorporate Jerusalem’s residents into its future state, in fact they are living within the city limits of Jerusalem, under Israeli civilian rule, and rely heavily on Israeli infrastructure and government services; more importantly, the Oslo accords left the ICBS, not the PCBS, in charge of counting the Jerusalem Arabs.
Second, the PCBS, by its own admission, included at least 325,000 Palestinians, fully 13 percent of the PCBS total, who were living outside of the PA. Although the agency claimed it was performing a de facto census (defined by demographers as counting only people physically present), it made an exception for non-residents who had received identification cards during Israel’s Civil Administration, regardless of how long they had been absent. (Israel, by comparison, removes people from its population counts after they have been abroad for a year.) The inclusion of non-residents with identification cards is not an uncommon practice for Palestinian agencies: The Palestine Central Election Commission (CEC), for example, noted in 2004 that 13 percent of its base of eligible voters lived abroad.5 Thus, by double-counting the Jerusalem Arabs and including Palestinian Arabs living abroad in their total, the PCBS managed to add 535,000 people to their population total.
When the twice-counted Jerusalem Arabs and those residents living abroad are subtracted from the PCBS population base, it turns out that there are only 113,000 more Arabs than documented by the ICBS. This new disparity bodes far better: Considering the contentious nature of demographics, such a small difference between the Israeli and Palestinian counts underscores that the disparities between the two counts were the result of changes in definition, not changes in actual numbers of people. The lower ICBS figure was further corroborated by Palestinian voting records: According to the CEC, there were 1.3 million adults physically living in the territories and eligible to vote in 2004 and 2005. That figure exactly matches the ICBS age grouping predictions, which indicated that there would be 1.3 million residents over the age of 18 and eligible to vote in 2004, as opposed to the 1.85 million predicted in the PCBS forecast. Thus when projecting Palestinian population figures for 2004—the last year for which official data has been released—the PCBS began with a significantly inflated base number for 1997.
The PCBS then took its artificially inflated population base and predicted that it would grow at an average of 4.75 percent per year from 1997 to 2004—the highest rate in the world—as a result of high birth rates and massive immigration. Yet official data from Palestinian and Israeli agencies has since revealed that these PCBS birth and immigration expectations were not met for even one year between 1997 and 2004.
The first explanation for the lesser growth rate is the lower observed rate of natural increase—that is, births minus deaths. From 1997 through the end of 2003, there were 308,000 fewer births than the PCBS had predicted, according to the PA Ministry of Health (MOH), which kept detailed birth records by district, hospital, and type of delivery.6 PA Ministry of Education records on the number of children entering first grade corroborate the MOH’s lower figures.7 With regard to deaths, the numbers are also lower, with the PCBS projections of deaths from 1997 to 2003 exceeding MOH statistics by some 32,000. The PCBS birth and death rate predictions were not significantly off, but when they were applied to a large number of individuals not living in the West Bank and Gaza, they caused the PCBS forecast to significantly overstate births and deaths. In the area of natural population growth, therefore, the Palestinian projections were artificially inflated by some 276,000.
The second explanation has to do with the movement of Palestinians into and out of the territories. The PCBS predicted that a net 236,000 Palestinians would move into the territories from abroad between 1997 and 2003, when in reality Israeli border police records show that a net 74,000 moved out—yielding a net error of 310,000 people. In addition, according to an Israeli Ministry of the Interior report, in the same period 105,000 Palestinians moved to pre-1967 Israel from the territories under family reunification programs—Palestinians whom the PCBS continued to count, but who were now being counted as Israeli Arabs as well—bringing the total inflation of Palestinian figures as a result of faulty accounting of immigration and emigration to 415,000 people. It is a fact that Palestinian Arab emigration is one of the most important untold stories behind the conflict, playing as it does a critical role in reducing the Palestinian growth rate. For instead of a large number of Palestinians moving into the territories as the PCBS anticipated, a much larger number of Palestinians fled to neighboring countries and to democracies such as Australia, Europe, the United States, Canada, and their destination of first choice, Israel. Over 100,000 have entered Israel legally—plus an uncertain but substantial number who entered Israel illegally and are not counted in any of the data in question. One reason for this Palestinian exodus is the uprising that erupted in the fall of 2000: Since then, many concerned Arab parents have sent their children out of the country to escape the influence of a society that encourages its young to volunteer for suicide missions. Many of these parents, moreover, were not certain their children would return, or indeed, whether they would join them abroad.8 This phenomenon, as Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid observed in 2001, was a “well-kept secret”: Journalists were forbidden to report on it, since the PA believed it would be “detrimental to the national interest.”9

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