Demographic Debate Continues |

How Many Palestinians Actually Live in the West Bank?

New research from right-wing group says Palestinians exaggerate population by 1 million, argues time and demographics are on Israel's side. However, Israeli authorities say the number stands at 2.5 million.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

In May 2012, the Palestinian population of the West Bank stood at 2,657,029, according to a Civil Administration document obtained by Haaretz. In addition, the document points out, there has been a 29 percent rise in the Palestinian population since the year 2000.

However, over the past few years, a fierce battle has taken place over the number of Palestinians living in the territories.

The American-Israel Demographic Research Group has been trying for eight years to prove that the Palestinians have managed, with great sophistication, to inflate their true population by 1 million people, and that the real figure currently stands at about 1.5 million people.

The group's claims are not corroborated by demographic experts in Israel and around the world, but Israeli right-wing activists and politicians have adopted them, including Economy Minister and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) and former defense minister and foreign minister Moshe Arens.

Right-wing activists say that if there are only 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, there is no "threat" to Israel's demography – referring to the state's desire to maintain a Jewish majority – and no need to launch negotiations over a Palestinian state. Instead, they say, it's time to talk about annexing Palestinian territories and their residents to Israel.

Hotovely says that in the long term Israel can naturalize all West Bank Palestinians and still remain a Jewish state, and Bennett's views are similar. "There are 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 400,000 settlers, and nobody's going anywhere," Bennett recently said in an interview with the Washington Post.

The American-Israel Demographic Research Group is led by former diplomat Yoram Ettinger. The team responsible for the data includes Los Angeles businessman Bennett Zimmerman, historian Roberta Seid and physicist Michael L. Wise.

The group published its first paper in 2005 in what was seen as a move to block the Gaza pullout by disputing the accepted demographic figures. The paper contests the Palestinian Authority's censuses of both 1997 and 2007.

These censuses were the only ones held in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 and were supervised by the Norwegian government. Based on these studies and figures from the Palestinians, the Israel Defense Forces, the United Nations and the Shin Bet security service, the Palestinian population in the West Bank is usually estimated at between 2.6 million and 2.7 million.

But according to the American-Israeli group these numbers are distorted. First, the group says these numbers include 300,000 Arab residents of East Jerusalem, which Israel counts as Israeli Arabs. Second, the group says Palestinian demographers include people who left the West Bank many years ago. Third, it says figures for population growth don't jibe.

"These are not necessarily lies," Ettinger said. "But the Palestinians count differently. The problem isn't them; the problem is with those who accept their data without checking. For example, in the matter of the births there's a very imprecise fact there, to say the least."

The group points to the decline in the Arab birthrate throughout the Middle East. According to Ettinger, the birthrate of Jewish women in Israel is higher now than that of women in neighboring countries.

"What this group is doing borders on crime, it's a macro deception," said Prof. Arnon Soffer, a geography professor and a severe critic of the American-Israel Demographic Research Group . A 2004 meeting between Soffer and then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was considered a milestone in Sharon's decision to embark on the Gaza disengagement.

In 2007, Soffer co-wrote an article called "The Tricky Million-Person Gap." According to the piece, all 21 assumptions of the American-Israeli group are flawed.

"Take for example the issue of mortality," Soffer told Haaretz. "The Jewish population has the normal number of elderly compared to the rest of the world. The Arab population does not have as many elderly people and so the mortality rate is lower." Among Israeli Jews, six people die annually out of every 1,000, compared with 2.5 in the Arab community, Soffer says.

"The members of the group also say that every year between 60,000 and 80,000 people leave the country. So if we're patient, in a few years the last Arab will turn off the light," Soffer said.

"Believe me, I've been at all the border crossings and there is no such thing. It's nonsense. They also claim that the figure of 400,000 Palestinians living abroad should be subtracted. But what about the number of Israelis living in New York?"

The debate boils down to whether there is a Jewish majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. According to Ettinger, Jews make up 66 percent of the population between the river and the sea. And due to the change in birthrates, this majority is stable. "There is no Arab time bomb, there is a Jewish tailwind," he said.

According to Soffer, there are 6.2 million Jews and others in Israel, 1.7 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. There are 1.6 million Israeli Arabs, not including Druze. Thus there are 5.8 million Arabs and 6.2 million Jews between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Soffer also talks about 60,000 people who have entered Israel illegally, 120,000 tourists who have outstayed their visas, and 300,000 Palestinians who have entered Israel since 1967 and live here, as well as foreign workers. "We are now 49 percent between the Jordan and the sea," Soffer says.

"If this were an academic debate, it wouldn't be worth my while to deal with [the group]," Soffer said. "But suddenly Bogie [Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon] tells me we don't have a demographic problem."

According to Dr. Assaf Sharon, academic director at Molad, a left-wing think tank, "The debate over the future of the territories is important enough to hold based on real facts and data. The so-called facts in the ideological right wing's strategy are baseless. Rightists forget that a lie repeatedly told does not become the truth. The annexation of the territories means a binational state. You can be for or against it, but you can't deny it."

Palestinian women passing through an Israeli checkpoint on their way to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, on the second Friday off the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Friday, July 27, 2012.Credit: AP
A Civil Administration document details the Palestinian population in the West Bank.

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