Thursday, June 4, 2009

Politics of Palestinian demography. Part I


by Yakov Faitelson

 1st part of 2 

With every generation, it seems, a new demographic panic strikes Israel. Opening the Israeli Knesset (parliament) on October 8, 2007, after the Jewish New Year, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned of "a demographic battle, drowned in blood and tears," if Israel did not make territorial concessions.[1] As a new administration in Washington seeks to revive the peace process, the demographic question has again moved front and center. Citing Israel's eroding demographic position, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen urged Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton to try "tough love" to force Israeli concessions.[2] Proponents of the argument that demography mandates concessions might be sincere, but they get the science wrong. Not only does demography not show an imminent Jewish minority in Israel, but even a cursory look at Palestinian numbers shows just how false and politically motivated recent Palestinian surveys are.

On February 9, 2008, Luay Shabaneh, the new president of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), published the results of a December 2007 Palestinian Authority population census.[3] According to the new data, since 1997, the Arab population has increased to 1,460,000 in the Gaza Strip and 2,300,000 in the West Bank (including 208,000 in East Jerusalem) to a total of 3,760,000 people — an increase of 30 percent in one decade. East Jerusalem is under Israel's administration, but the Palestinian Authority nevertheless counts its Arab population as part of the territory it administers. Thus, the East Jerusalem Arabs are double-counted: once as part of the Arab population of Israel, and again as a part of the population of the Palestinian Authority.

The 30 percent population increase again caused renewed demographic panic in Israel. According to a BBC news report, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said that failure to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians would bring the end of the State of Israel.[4]

But unlike what had happened during previous demographic panics, Israeli experts began to raise serious questions about the accuracy of the census. Such questions had been a long time in coming: Most of the middle- and long-term demographic forecasts for Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip — formulated by demographers over the last 110 years — have turned out to be unsound, often dramatically so. This is due to the fact that long-term military, political, economic, and social changes in the region particularly, and in the world in general, cannot be accurately predicted; what is presented with a patina of scientific legitimacy is often simply someone's best guess. Added to this problem is a more troublesome one: Population statistics and birth rates play such an important role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — from the way that foreign aid is allocated to Israel's decision to hold or relinquish territory — that those attempting to manipulate the perceptions of both the public and policymakers are irresistibly drawn to the field.

Those who questioned the new Palestinian census were correct: The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics' demographic data arrived at its data not through objective scientific inquiry but rather by overstating the size of the Arab population residing in the territories administered by the Palestinian Authority.


The History of Demographic Forecasts

In a March 1898 letter, the famous Jewish historian, Simon Dubnow, criticized Zionist ideas, writing,

During seventeen years of tense work to encourage substantial emigration, after the expense of vast means and with the help of millions donated by Rothschild, we managed to place on the land of Palestine only about 3,600 settlers, which makes up approximately 211 people per year. Let us allow that the Western Zionist committees will work with significantly larger capitals and energy and will move to Palestine not two hundred, but one thousand settlers annually ... then in a hundred years the Jewish population of Palestine will reach one hundred thousand men. Let's increase this number five times and add to this the natural increase and inflow of the industrial population to the cities, then we shall receive about a half million Jews in Palestine after one hundred years ... Certainly, all of us treasure the hope to see at the beginning of the twenty-first century about a half-million of our brothers living in our ancient homeland, but can it solve the problem of 10 millions Jews, who are dispersed?[5]

In May 1948, only fifty years after Dubnow's projections, the Jews in Palestine already numbered 649,600 people.

Such mistaken projections, however, have been the rule rather than the exception. At the end of 1944, Roberto Bachi presented to the Jewish National Council, the main institution of the Jewish community during the British Mandate, a secret demographic report[6] that included four forecasts: optimistic and pessimistic, and with Jewish immigration as a variable. Bachi based his forecasts on the existing demographic data for 1938-42 and on estimates of trends that could be accepted as reasonable. He assumed that Arab fertility for the ensuing sixty years would continue to be very high (seven children or more per woman) or that it would decrease only slightly (six children per woman). He also assumed that Jewish fertility would remain at about two children per woman but might increase slightly to three children per woman. He also predicted that Jewish immigration might bring about one million Jews to Israel during the five to fifteen years starting from 1946.[7]

These estimates could not be treated as prophecy, wrote Bachi, since the differences between reality and forecast increase as the projected time period lengthens. According to Bachi's pessimistic scenario, by 1971, the population of Palestine would include 2,467,000 Arabs and 604,000 Jews without Jewish immigration[8] or 1,695,000 Jews should there have been one million Jewish immigrants.[9] According to Bachi's more optimistic forecasts, the population of Palestine in the same year could consist of 2,186,000 Arabs and 698,000 Jews without immigration or 1,898,000 Jews with a million Jewish immigrants.

Fast-forward to 1971. Israel controlled the whole territory of the former British Mandate in Palestine, and 2,662,000 Jews already lived in Israel — about half a million more than in Bachi's most optimistic projection. The Arab population stood at 1,460,000,[10] about one million fewer than he had predicted. Then in 1972, Bachi predicted, as he had in 1956,[11] that immigration to Israel would stop as the Jews of the West were indifferent and the Jews of the Soviet Union were forever trapped.[12] Nevertheless, over the next seven years, more than a quarter million Jews migrated to Israel.

His projections for 2001 were similarly off-base: According to the pessimistic forecast, the population of Palestine in 2001 would comprise 5,871,000 Arabs and 563,000 Jews without immigration or 1,580,000 Jews with a million Jewish immigrants. Following his optimistic forecast, the population of Palestine in 2001 should have been 4,415,000 Arabs and 831,000 Jews without immigration or 2,258,000 Jews with a million Jewish immigrants.

The reality was quite different. The Jewish population reached 5,025,010, nine times more than his pessimistic projection, and 2.2 times more than his most optimistic forecast. When combined with the immigrant population from the former Soviet Union, the total comprised 5,281,300 people.[13] The total Arab population reached 3,570,000, some 1,300,000, or 39 percent less than Bachi's projection for 2001.

Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics forecast in 1968 that, by 1985, the Jewish population would increase to 2,923,000, and the Arab population would rise to 49 percent of Israel's total population.[14] In reality, there were 3,517,200 Jews in 1985, representing 62.7 percent of the total population.

Amidst the 1987 Palestinian uprising against Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza, demographic predictions — no matter how sloppy — became the stuff of headlines. In 1987, the Israeli newspaper Yedi'ot Aharanot quoted Arnon Sofer's bombshell forecast: "In the year 2000, Israel will become non-Jewish."[15] The New York Times' Thomas Friedman picked up Sofer's prediction and ran with it in an 1800-word, page one story.[16] Sofer claimed that by 2000 there would be "4.2 million Jews versus 3.5 million non-Jews. The 3.5 million Arabs would include: 1.2 million Israeli Arabs within the Green Line, one million Arabs in the Gaza Strip, and between 1.1 and 1.5 million in the West Bank."[17] Sofer's tally indicated for 2000 a range of between 2.1 to 2.5 million Arabs in the Palestinian territories.

Putting aside the fact that the figures did not justify the headlines proclaiming a Jewish minority, Sofer actually miscalculated the Arab population twice: First, by using the 1986 Central Bureau of Statistics forecast made for 2002 for all Arabs — defined officially as citizens and permanent residents of the State of Israel, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights — as the Arab population of Israel only "within the Green Line," i.e., exclusive of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; and, second, by folding the Arab population of East Jerusalem into the forecast of the Arab population in the Palestinian territories. Then, he presented the forecast for the West Bank and Gaza Strip including East Jerusalem, as it was usually done by the U.N., CIA, and Palestinian sources. In effect, this results in double counting the East Jerusalem population, first as permanent residents of the State of Israel and then as the residents of Palestinian territory.

A month later, Sofer explained his forecast: "Without even considering birth rates, to make up one percentage point today, we need an additional 170,000 Jews ...Who among us really expects that sort of aliya (migration to Israel) in the near future?"[18] Two years later, though, just such a migration occurred, underlining the inability of the demographers to forecast political developments. Over the ensuing decade, more than one million Jews were repatriated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Including mixed Jewish families, this wave of immigration totaled 1.2 million people and increased Israel's Jewish population by 31 percent. Demographic prediction is such an uncertain science that even Israeli specialists get it wrong repeatedly.

(Yakov Faitelson )

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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