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The figures of the population census that was conducted by the Palestinians in 1997 are reliable and their forecasts regarding population growth during the coming decade are reasonable. So says the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in a document it has submitted to the Knesset State Control Committee. The explanation in the document for the contradiction between the Palestinian data and the data that the CBS itself published over the past decade is that the CBS estimates were erroneous, based on a very old census from 1967 and apparently under-estimated. The head of the demography department at the CBS, Ahmad Halihal, writes: "The Palestinian census was conducted according to accepted international procedures and the census process was correct."

The CBS document relates to the stormy debate currently dividing the political and scientific establishments on the question of how many Palestinians are living in the territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The CBS has in effect come down on the side of the veteran school of demography, on which the Palestinians' estimates are based and which holds that 3 million to 3.5 million Palestinians are living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This, in contrast to a new document published some six months ago by an Israeli-American team of experts, headed by Ben Zimmerman and Yoram Ettinger, that states that only 2.4 million Palestinians live in the territories.

The claim that far fewer Palestinians are living in the territories than usually thought serves those who argue that the disengagement is unnecessary.

The Zimmerman-Ettinger team noted, among other things, the fact that, according to the figures of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), in 2000 there were 3.2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. According to the figures of the Israeli bureau, in 1990 in those areas there were only 1.5 million Palestinians. A population growth of 109 percent in a decade "is nearly double that in most countries of the world," they wrote. In other words, this is an unreasonable and illogical difference and one (or both) of the bureaus erred. Now the CBS is saying it made the mistake.

`Reasonable and appropriate'

Halihal also writes in the document he sent to the Knesset that "the natural growth assumptions [of the PCBS] seem reasonable and appropriate ... However, the Palestinian bureau's assumptions about a positive integration balance appear very exaggerated for a period of intifada and economic crisis." And indeed, recently the Palestinian bureau has amended its immigration estimate and has decreased the estimate of the number of inhabitants in the PA from 3.8 million to 3.6 million (including East Jerusalem).

Government Statistician Prof. Shlomo Yitzhaki wrote to Knesset State Control Committee Chair MK Yuri Stern (National Union) that the ICBS cannot provide an estimate of its own of the number of inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza, because it cannot gather data there.

The fact that the Palestinian bureau has managed to wipe out about 200,000 inhabitants could be seen as an achievement for the Zimmerman-Ettinger team of experts. However, in the team they are rejecting outright the ICBS support for the amended Palestinian figures. Over the years, says Ettinger, a former diplomat and a strategic adviser, they never raised an eyebrow in the [CBS] bureau at the contradictions between their figures and the Palestinians'. "Now they are prepared to cut off the branch on which they are sitting in order to explain away their impotence." According to him, "The bureau's document is an unprofessional response of the sort that gets scrawled on a napkin in a restaurant."

Today the issue will come up for discussion for the second time in the State Control Committee. "There are claims and there are counter-claims, and I want to hold a face-to-face confrontation," says Stern. He does not conceal his dissatisfaction with the CBS document. According to him, the bureau did not examine the Israeli-American team's document but rather decided the Palestinians had done a better job, "without any proof." At the CBS they say that they could not check the Zimmerman-Ettinger document because "we did not receive an orderly research report but rather a PowerPoint presentation." In the terms of academic discourse, this can be considered an insult.

Rather than succeeding in selling their answers, the people of the Zimmerman-Ettinger team have succeeded in selling the questions. The team stresses the fact that the PCBS numbers are not data but rather a forecast, which is based on the census the Palestinians conducted in 1997, counting 2.6 million people. The team's examination was based on statistics regarding births, deaths and immigration, as collected by the Palestinian Health Ministry, the Palestinian elections committee, the CBS in Israel and other bodies. "There is not a shadow of doubt that the figures need to be reexamined," agrees Prof. Sergio della Pergola, a senior Israeli demographer for Hebrew University and head of the Jewish People Planning Institute.

However, the answer the team is providing is very controversial. According to the team's calculations, the number of Palestinians in the West Bank is 1.4 million and in the Gaza Strip - 1 million. This, in contrast to the CBS figures until recently - 2.4 million in the West Bank and 1.4 million in Gaza. And what does the veteran school say? Della Pergola estimates that currently there are 3.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

At a conference held by Haifa University about two weeks ago, Prof. Arnon Sofer of that university presented a series of alternative estimates, but said he tends to support the population estimate that is based on Israel Defense Forces figures - a total of 3 million, of which 2 million reside in the West Bank and 1 million in Gaza.

According to the members of the Zimmerman-Ettinger team, in the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River there are 60 percent Jews and 40 percent Arabs, and therefore the population symmetry between Jews and Arabs is distant and will perhaps never arrive. According to della Pergola, taking into account only Jews versus Arabs, the tie point of 50:50 will occur this year. If non-Jewish immigrants and foreign workers are also taken into account on the Jewish side, the Jewish majority now stands at about 54 percent and the tie point is expected towards the middle of the next decade.

Drastic decline

How does the Ettinger-Zimmerman team arrive at a number of inhabitants that is smaller by 1.4 million than the PCBS figure?

According to the team, there is a drastic decline in the rate of natural reproduction in the territories of the PA - from 3.8 percent annually in 1997 to 2.4 percent at present. On the basis of Palestinian Health Ministry figures, the team members calculated that the number of births in the West Bank and Gaza in reality is smaller by 274,000 than the PCBS stated. This dramatic development, say the team members, has been caused by a large migration of inhabitants from the villages to the cities, an increase in the use of birth control, an increase in the age of marriage and the divorce rate and the expansion of the education system. The claim about this drastic decline in the birthrate in such a short time is without a doubt the weakest link in the team's claims.

Della Pergola says he does not see why he has to believe the Palestinian Health Ministry and not the CBS, "which usually tries to do a good job."

At least with respect to one claim, there is no argument. The Palestinians count the 200,000 inhabitants of East Jerusalem, as does Israel. However, the Israeli demographers have taken this fact into account, so there is not much new here. More controversial is the argument that the Palestinians also count 150,000 people who have received Israeli identity cards since 1993.

In 1998, the director of the PCBS, Hassan Abu Libda, said the cenus included "325,000 people who live outside the land of Palestine." According to Ettinger, the inclusion of these people in the figures is like Israel including in its census all the Israelis who have immigrated to other countries. According to Halihal, from the reports of the PCBS it emerges that the Palestinians who live abroad were included in the census questionnaire, but were not counted as inhabitants.

The PCBS forecast assumed, perhaps on the basis of the euphoria of Oslo, that a positive balance of immigration of 230,000 people into the PA territories was to be expected between 1997 and 2004. In reality, according to Ettinger, during those years a negative immigration balance was recorded of tens of thousands of people a year. The researchers claim this means there is a difference of 300,000 people between reality and the forecast. This argument has been adopted recently in part even by the PCBS.

And another problem: The PCBS death rate forecast is lower than the figures of the Palestinian Health Ministry. This, said Ettinger at the Haifa University conference, is because "the Palestinians don't die much," that is - they do not report deaths, so as not to lose the support from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Della Pergola says that "even if we subtract several hundred thousand from the forecast, this only moves the year of the demographic tie by a few years. Does this change anything?" According to him, this process is nearly inevitable because of the phenomenon called "demographic momentum." The young age structure of the Palestinian population will give rise to a larger number of babies. However, della Pergola believes that all the focus on the "tie year" is a mistake, because "even a situation of 45:55 percent has major social significance."

They are not demographers

Like entertainment troupes, over the past two weeks the people of the Israeli-American team and della Pergola, Sofer and the CBS people have been going from event to event, conference to conference, symposium to symposium. The debate between them is accompanied by many harsh statements. Della Pergola says of the team's work that "this is only supposedly scientific work. They are not demographers. They are not knowledgeable about what they are writing."

"They are lying brazenly," says Prof. Sofer, "and are beginning to give advice to our bureau of statistics, which is one of the best in the world."

"To cry out that the king is not wearing any clothes you don't need to be a tailor," says Ettinger. "It is a matter of very simple actions of addition and subtraction." He says the work was reviewed and he claims that it has won the backing of several leading demographers in the United States. "We are basing ourselves on figures between which there is a very clear correlation. The other school has only now discovered that there is data." Ettinger also says that on their team there are three people who are experts on what is occurring in the PA, such as former Civil Administration head Brigadier General (Res.) David Shahaf.

There are, of course, many charges of political motives. "The document you have written is political, lying and impertinent," said Sofer to Ettinger at the conference at Haifa University. Ettinger runs an Internet site called "Hatikvah" against the disengagement. According to Sofer, the timing of the publication before the disengagement is not coincidental and derives from the fact that the Israeli right has begun to discover that the use of demography is a two-edged sword and is now working to its detriment. "They have stuck in the arrow and drawn the target around it," says della Pergola. But Sofer himself is a leading supporter of the separation fence, and the people of the team are displaying documents in which he supports different figures, according to them to suit his political aims.