Palestinian surveyors fanned out across Gaza and the West Bank on Thursday, counting homes and people in the first census in a decade, a rare joint endeavor of bitter rivals Hamas and Fatah.
Demographics play a central role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinians have a high birth rate, almost double Israel's, forcing Israel to consider the possibility that Jews, despite Jewish immigration, could be one day a minority in historic Palestine.
Rapid Palestinian population growth was a key factor in Israel's decision to pull out of the densely populated Gaza Strip in 2005.
The first Palestinian census in 1997 counted 2.89 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. According to estimates by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the figure now stands at 3.9 million.
Both the Hamas government in Gaza and the Western-backed Cabinet of moderates in the West Bank have said they would support the census, conducted with international funding by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
Hamas took control of Gaza by force in June, prompting moderate Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to install his own cabinet in the West Bank. The two bitter rivals have frequently tried to undermine each other, each claiming to be the legitimate government. But the census overcomes the enmity.
"We won't stand against it," Taher Nunu, a Hamas government spokesman, said of the census. "It helps in planning and in making decisions and will be of benefit to everyone."
Census officials said they used both local Hamas-controlled radio stations in Gaza as well as radio and TV in the West Bank to promote the project.
Officials in the West Bank said the new statistics will be useful in negotiations with Israel.
Some 2,000 census-takers will go home to home in Gaza and 3,000 in the West Bank, said Khaldan Radwan, who runs the census in Gaza.
"No party politics are allowed," he said. "We have Hamas and Fatah in the project leadership," he said. "This is a national project. A project of sovereignty."
But in violence-stricken Gaza, a home visit by any official is usually a cause for concern. Seif Yaghi, a census researcher in the crowded Shati refugee camp, said he used jokes and clan politics to gain entry.
"People are stressed, tired, suspicious and tense," said Yaghi after his first home visit of the day. "I explain to them that census is a national necessity."
Lutfi Abdel Fattah, an unemployed tailor who lives in a small apartment with nine children, his wife and mother, said he wants the team to visit him.
"I would love anyone to come visit me and see how I live in this tiny place," he said. Maybe something good would come out of it."