Determining how many Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip may seem like a relatively simple matter to resolve, but no reliable figures seem to exist. The Israeli Civil Administration in the territories makes use of Palestinian Authority data, which other officials in Israel consider problematic.
Research institutes identified with the right wing contend that the data are wrong. The disparity between the smallest and largest estimate of the Palestinian population in the territories is a difference of a million people.
Knesset members on the right immediately took exception to remarks by the deputy head of the Israeli Civil Administration, Col. Haim Mendes, on Tuesday when he claimed that more than five million Palestinians live in the combined area of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some on the right-wing who support Jewish settlement in the West Bank say time and demography are working in Israel's favor rather than that of the Palestinians, and they conclude that if the number of Palestinians in the West Bank is relatively low, and the demographic demon is nonexistent, there is no need to enter negotiations about the establishment of a Palestinian state. Instead the time has come to discuss how to annex the territories to Israel.
In attempting to resolve the conundrum, one place to start is with the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, which says there are 1.8 million Arabs living in Israel proper, including East Jerusalem but excluding the West Bank and Gaza. Yet there is a dispute over the number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Municipality has said that 316,000 Palestinian had "resident" status in the city in 2016. They are not Israeli citizens but have the right to vote in municipal elections.
That same year, the Jerusalem mayor's adviser on Arab affairs, David Koren, told a subcommittee of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that, at the time, there were several tens of thousands of Palestinians in addition who were living in the city but not registered as residents. For its part, Jerusalem's municipal water corporation, Gihon, has said that at least 370,000 Palestinian live in East Jerusalem.
On Wednesday, the Palestinian Authority's Central Bureau of Statistics released its own figures on the number of Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza – in other words, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. They show that as of 2016, 4.88 million Palestinians lived in the territories – 2.97 million in the West Bank and 1.91 million in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians also claim that 1.53 million Arabs live in Israel proper, while Israeli authorities say there are 1.8 million.
The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics projects that in 2020, there will be an Arab majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, with 6.96 million Jews – 49.3 percent of the total – and 7.12 million Arabs.
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The Israeli Civil Administration in the territories has additional information, based on data from the Palestinian Authority's Population Registry, that shows that there are currently about 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 2 million in Gaza. Although the Civil Administration makes use of the Palestinian figures, it relates to them with skepticism, saying that the Palestinians include people in their figures who have never lived in the West Bank. The Civil Administration believes that the Palestinian Authority issues passports to children born abroad to Palestinian parents and counts them as Palestinian citizens living in the Palestinian Authority.
On the political right-wing in Israel, the objection is even stronger. The Yesha Council of Jewish settlements produced documents on Tuesday from the Palestinian Population Registry that included individuals born in the 19th century among those who were purportedly still alive.
The real population figures are apparently somewhere in the middle of the range of data. According to Prof. Sergio Della Pergolla, a demographer at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, there were 2.4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank in 2015. Jews are in the majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, but the majority is slim, he says, estimating it at just 52%.
Della Pergolla claims that Palestinian figures overstate the number of Palestinians by 600,000 – half because they don't exist and half because they are East Jerusalem residents who have already been counted by Israel. That, the Hebrew University demographer says, reduces the number of Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip to 4.7 million. Cautioning against the error of counting East Jerusalem residents twice, he says the mistake is the strong argument that the right wing has.
The Israeli military does not automatically resort to using the Palestinian data, Della Pergola says, and there are also numbers that the Palestinians themselves "don’t like to make public so much, but I saw them once and they also point to a negative migration balance," meaning that more Palestinians are leaving the region than are arriving.
For his part, however, Shaul Arieli, a researcher of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who follows developments in the territories, said: "I have no reason to doubt the reliability of either the figures from the [Israeli] Civil Administration or the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, which are also consistent with data from other researchers, including those of Professor Della Pergolla." Major importance should be attached to the data rather than "the few studies meant primarily to serve the right wing," he adds.
The figures force Israel to confront questions relating to the continuation of the occupation, Arieli claims. "If this trend continues, without a political agreement and separation from the Palestinians based on two states, a state will develop with an Arab majority that Jews don't control or an apartheid state that will be a leper country where the Jewish minority controls the Arab majority and that can't continue for many years," he adds.
Among Palestinians, the issue is being followed closely following reports in Israel on the data. There are those who claim that the demographic issue should be used as leverage to exert pressure for a diplomatic solution. Others say the demographic situation is not sufficient to lead to a resolution of the conflict between Jews and Palestinians.
Prof. Asad Ghanem of the political science department at the University of Haifa, said: "The Jews were a minority [in Palestine] in 1948, but following proper organizing and a lack of organization on the part of the Palestinian and the Arab world in general, the State of Israel managed to overcome the Arabs at every major juncture." Ghanem said in light of the absence of a diplomatic horizon and what he said was the collapse of the two-state solution, Palestinian are preoccupied with where things are headed. He called the two-state solution "an illusion that the Palestinian leadership, particularly the Palestinian Authority continues, to hold onto."
"The evidence that through the demographic presence a diplomatic solution can be achieved is misleading," Ghanem concluded.