Experts: Tens of Thousands of Palestinians Living in East Jerusalem Unaccounted for in Data

Official statistics show that Jerusalem has a 63 percent Jewish population, but a water study shows that it's likely closer to 59 percent

Water tanks on the rooves of homes in East Jerusalem's Shoafat neighborhood.
Olivier Fitoussi

Next week, ahead of "Jerusalem Day", the Jerusalem Institute will publish official data regarding the city, starting with the number of Jews and Arabs that call it home. However, Jews may comprise a much smaller majority in Jerusalem than official statistics claim, data collected by the municipal water corporation shows.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 542,000 Jews and 324,000 Arabs in the city, meaning Jews comprise 63 percent of the population and Arabs 37 percent. But the water corporation data indicates that tens of thousands of Palestinians living within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries are missing from the official count. If they were taken into account, experts say, the Jewish majority would shrink to about 59 percent, while the Palestinian majority would grow to 41 percent.

The discrepancy stems from the fact that the separation fence severed two neighborhoods that are technically within Jerusalem’s boundaries – the Shoafat refugee camp and Kafr Aqab – from the rest of the city. These neighborhoods have become anarchic zones where law enforcement personnel rarely come. And because the building laws have not been enforced, tens of thousands of illegal apartments have been built there, attracting many Palestinians in search of cheap housing, despite the fact that these neighborhoods have become overcrowded slums.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Nobody knows exactly how many people live in these neighborhoods, but everyone agrees that the official statistics, which only count the neighborhoods’ officially registered residents, are much lower than the reality. According to the statistics bureau, only 60,000 people are registered as living in these two neighborhoods, but various estimates place the number at 140,000 or more. 

Dr. Maya Choshen, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies who edits its annual statistical yearbook of Jerusalem, estimates that at least 80,000 of these “new” residents actually come from other neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, but never registered their change of address when they moved to the other side of the separation fence in search of cheaper housing. In other words, they are already included in the official statistics.

But even the most cautious estimates say that at least 50,000 residents of these neighborhoods aren’t included in the official statistics. If so, Jerusalem’s total population would rise to over 900,000, of which Palestinians would comprise 41 percent.

A comprehensive study of this issue was carried out recently by the municipal water and sewage corporation, Hagihon, which was spurred to investigate the situation due to repeated water supply problems in the neighborhoods beyond the fence. The study is based on aerial photographs of the neighborhoods, calculations of the size of the buildings and the number of people living in them, and calculations of the amount of water used and the amount of sewage and trashed produced. Experts who have seen it told Haaretz they believed it is fairly accurate.

The study concluded that in reality, between 120,000 and 140,000 people live in these two neighborhoods, with the lion’s share – about 80,000 – living in Shoafat. The state comptroller has similarly concluded that about 140,000 people live in these neighborhoods.

Experts believe that about half of the unregistered Palestinians in these neighborhoods are not legal residents of Israel, but rather residents of the West Bank. In some cases, they are married to Jerusalem residents, or even children of Jerusalem residents, but have been unable to acquire residency themselves due to legislation that has barred many Palestinians from acquiring residency under family reunification procedures. 

For these families, the neighborhoods beyond the separation fence are a kind of sanctuary city. Because they are still part of Jerusalem, the authorities can’t claim that the legal Jerusalem resident has left the city and therefore strip him of his residency status. But because law enforcement personnel don’t go there, family members without legal residency needn’t fear being arrested and deported to the West Bank.