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The Numbers Game

Brig.-Gen. (ret.) David Shahaf (Shaffi) listens intently as American strategy consultant Bennett Zimmerman and leading Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola engage in a debate.

The setting is the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The subject: A new study conducted by Zimmerman and a team of American and Israeli researchers, which challenges the heretofore uncontested facts of Israel's "demographic problem" with the Palestinians.

Zimmerman's American-based team has come to Israel to present its findings to the Knesset and other forums. Della Pergola is skeptical about the findings. That there isn't a single demographer among the presenters is not his main criticism. Of greater concern to him and other population experts is the revolutionary claim that contrary to decades'-long, world-wide acceptance, it is the Jews who will continue to outnumber the Arabs in Israel and not the other way around a claim he and his followers consider at best politically motivated, at worst unfounded.

Shaffi, one of the Israeli members of the research team, sits at the oval table of the JCPA conference room furiously taking notes, his facial expression alternating between calm bemusement and frustrated bewilderment. The 57-year-old former head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank and Gaza was selected to take part in the study due to his experience in overseeing and analyzing population censuses among Palestinians living in the territories before they came under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction.

During an hour-long interview at his Zahala home a few days earlier, Shaffi was armed with a stack of documents whose contents he rattled off passionately, almost without pause.

"What is happening among Palestinian women is no different from what's happening in the rest of the developing world," he said, pointing to serious drops in fertility rates, which he also attributed to the high level of education of the Palestinians. Furthermore, he added, contrary to all numerical projections, rather than there being massive immigration into the territories, there has been a high percentage of emigration. These are just some of the factors he said the research team examined to explain the discrepancy in the touted demographic statistics and the actual numbers.

The team that compiled the report was headed by Yoram Ettinger, a former diplomat in the Shamir government who later spent time in Washington on behalf of the Likud working as a lobbyist against the Oslo Accords. But Shahaf rejects charges that this means the study is just another form of right-wing propaganda. "If anyone wants to challenge us, he should do so by challenging our figures, not by attacking us politically," he says. "Let him deal with the trends we are exposing, rather than accusing us of impure motives."

What brought on this new study on Israel's demographics?

The question of the size of the Palestinian population is not a new one, of course. During my term at the Civil Administration in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, many population censuses were conducted, due to the need for planning everything from housing to the size of classrooms. Yet since 1997 when Israel handed over administrative control in the territories to the Palestinians no such census had been done. All planning since then was based on PA Central Bureau of Statistics data and forecasts. That's what brought on the study.

You based your research on Palestinian Authority data?

Yes. The Civil Administration had an adviser who was the representative of the Central Bureau of Statistics in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. There were teams of Palestinians on our payroll who conducted the population surveys. But until the authority was handed over to the Palestinians, the data analyses were handled by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics. At the time, there were always discrepancies between the data of the Interior Ministry and the Central bureau of Statistics. For example, in 1989, we did a serious study which we called the forecast for Judea, Samaria and Gaza in 2005. That was before the whole Oslo process began. The reason we needed the data had to do with planning how many schools would be needed, for example.

Not for political reasons?

No, absolutely not.

When did the demography issue first arise as the focus of a political debate?

You might be surprised to hear that even during the British Mandate period it was an issue.

After completing my part of the research on this current study, I continued to search for and examine all kinds of written material on the subject. Among this material, I came upon a 1947 document in the Library of the Intelligence Corps, which indicates that the discussion of the number of Jews and Arabs in pre-state Palestine was a political one.

Political on the part of the British?

Yes, the British made demography a political issue, and as a result, so did the Jews and the Arabs.

After finding this document, I sent a photocopy of it to Yoram [Ettinger], and wrote in the margins: "Nothing new under the sun." Because, when you read this document, you feel as though you might as well be reading a description of today's debate.

First of all, the author's thesis is that there is not an Arab majority in Israel. In 1947! And just remember, in 1947, it was said that there were 600,000 Jews and more than a million Arabs. And here he was saying that there wasn't an Arab majority.

Who wrote this document?

Someone named Traivish. I hadn't heard of him before. But he conducted a very thorough study in which he pointed to "surprising findings": that there is not an Arab majority in Israel.

"The time has come," he wrote, "to put an end, once and for all, to the myth of natural growth among the Arab population the numbers [we have been basing our forecasts on] are imaginary "

About the census the British conducted in 1922, following the Balfour Declaration, he said: "This is the way the statistics were presented in pre-state Israel: from the Mandatory bureaucracy to the cabinet; from the members of the cabinet to the house of representatives, to the press, to politicians, all of whom base their ideas on those statistics, and everybody repeats them year in and year out, in writing and orally, and thus a purposely misleading idea is turned into a fact accepted by the whole world."

This is just what is happening today. The Palestinians conducted a census in 1997 and [recently retired Haifa University Geography Professor] Arnon Soffer and others base their positions on those numbers.

In other words, in 1947, the assumption that the demography favored the Arabs was based on a false 1922 British census, while today, demographer Sergio Della Pergola and his followers are basing their statistics and positions on the basis of a false 1997 Palestinian census.

What do you say to "father of disengagement," Arnon Soffer, when he says that Israel can't rule over territory and a people who became a majority after 1967?

I don't want to get into the politics of this whole thing. Nor do I want to engage in a debate with Prof. Soffer about it. But I will say that our research team came across a very recent document written by Soffer himself, claiming that there are one million people in Gaza which is what we also say. This contradicts other publications of his that claim there are a million and a half. Suddenly, his numbers concur with ours.

So? What is the significance in the discrepancy? Does it really change anything where the issue is one of one people ruling over another? I mean, let's suppose there are only 40 percent Arabs in the territories, and not 50%. Are you comfortable with that?

The question is a different one altogether. What is significant is that population patterns and trends among the Palestinians are changing.

What kind of patterns?

Family planning, for example. It was always said that there is no family planning among the Palestinians that the fertility rates remain constant.

Yet, according to a PA health ministry annual report from 2003, the number of family planning clinics in the PA grew from 102 in 1997 to 190 in 2003. This is what the report says: "The increasing number of family planning clinics is accompanied with [sic] a significant increase in the use of contraceptive methods..."

Also according to this report, the fertility age of the Palestinian woman ranges from 15 to 49. In 1999, the average number of children per Palestinian woman was 4.39, while in 2003, it was 3.89. Such figures illustrate a pattern. This kind of shift is the kind of thing we exposed in our research. The reason such patterns hadn't been examined before had to do with the demography data being treated in a strictly technical, numerical manner.

In addition, presenting the numbers in a certain way was politically motivated. The leading Palestinian demography expert, Hassan Abu Lida, is the head of Abu Ala's bureau. In other words, he's a political figure. Let's not forget, as well, that international aid to the Palestinians is allocated on the basis of population figures. The World Bank adopted those figures. The UN adopts those figures. They say: "Those are the numbers provided by the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics." The Palestinians have been receiving more money per capita as a result of those figures than they would otherwise be receiving. So, it's completely clear why it is in the Palestinians' interest to keep them high.

But such changing patterns make perfect sense. What is happening among Palestinian women is no different from what's happening in the rest of the developing world and the periphery states, such as Egypt, Libya and Iran, where there is a drop in fertility rates.

What are other trends?

The process of urbanization, for example. It's harder to raise children in the city than it is in the country. In 1967, the Palestinian population was 30% urban and 70% country. Today, the ratio is reversed.

Another is education. The Palestinians are the most educated Arabs in the region and educated women have fewer children. This is true the world over. Contrary to popular opinion, Palestinian behavior is no different from that of other Arabs.

Another trend we examined is immigration/emigration. When the Palestinians did a calculation of projected annual immigration into the PA between 1997 and 2015, they based their data on the following hypothesis: that in 1997 there would be 5,000 immigrants; in 1998, there would be 10,000; in 1999, there would be 15,000; in 2000, there would be 20,000; in 2001, there would be 45,000 and in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005, there would be 45,000 each year.

If one takes only the years 1997-2004, the number of immigrants should have reached 230,000. Taking natural growth into account, if this were the case, the population increase would have been much higher even than this figure, of course. But we know both from Palestinian sources and from international ones who work in the territories, that between 2001-2003 alone, nearly 200,000 Arabs left the PA, due to the intifada. Some of these are even families of well-known PA members.

What all this tells us is that not only is the hypothesis about immigration wrong to begin with, but that there has been massive emigration. And this is very, very important where population data is concerned. The increase of the Jewish population, for example, was due mainly to immigration.

Everybody is treating your research as a right-wing study, geared to removing the excuse for disengagement.

In the first place, we began this study a year ago, when the issue of disengagement hadn't really become a given.

Furthermore, I'm not a right-winger; I'm a professional. I am aware of the fact that we are being attacked for not having a demographer on our team.

But all the material we studied and analyzed from the PA health ministry is open to the public. So, if anyone wants to challenge us, he should do so by challenging our figures, not by attacking us politically. Let him deal with the trends we are exposing, rather than accusing us of impure motives. Rather than arguing the projected figures, we have to look at the actual ones, because projections don't take unexpected processes into account. For example, Oslo.

How did Oslo make a difference to the figures?

At least 50,000 people came into the territories from outside. That was unexpected. As was the intifada, which caused the population to decrease by at least 100,000, if not 150,000.

Another thing not taken into account in all the data was the fact that the PA Bureau of Statistics counted the Arabs in east Jerusalem twice once as Israeli Arabs and again as Palestinians. Also counted twice are the Arabs who come into Israel for family reunification.

Still, what is the significance of all these numbers, patterns and trends?

The significance lies in acknowledging that throughout the years there has been a solid majority of Jews. And, that the assumption that within X number of years the Palestinian population will double, is not true. While the Jewish population increased by way more than double since 1948, the Arab population decreased.

So, whoever claims that separation is a solution without taking trends into account is merely postponing the problem for another few decades.

What do you mean by "postponing the problem?"

According to the statistics of Soffer and his ilk, the Arabs within Israel will become the problem the majority. I mean, I read somewhere that Soffer said he'd be willing to concede the triangle. And then what? What about the Arabs in the Galilee?

If your research is accepted as accurate, what effect will this have, if any, on government policy?

If you're asking me whether this will have an effect on the policy of disengagement, in my opinion it won't. I think that Arik Sharon is so invested in it that none of this will make a difference.

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