Published January 14, 2005
When new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas starts a new round of talks with Israel soon, it is a sure bet that one of his strongest motivating tools to spur the creation of a new Arab state is that surging Palestinian population figures mean that Jews will soon be outnumbered.
But a demographic study released this week could change all that. An eight-person team found that the actual number of residents in Gaza and the West Bank is nearly 1.4 million fewer than the published population of 3.8 million -- and they derived much of that number from Palestinian figures.
By any standard, the official tally of 3.8 million Palestinians is a breathtaking number. Both Israel and the then-new Palestinian Authority (PA) agreed in 1996 that the population was roughly 2 million -- which would mean that the number of people living in Gaza and the West Bank has nearly doubled in eight short years.
During the same time frame, however, birth rates have declined all across the Arab world -- except for Palestinians the standard of living for ordinary Palestinians is easily among the highest in Arab world, which should mean that their birth rates would be among the lowest in the region, not the highest.
As improbable as the official PA population figures are, they have not been challenged until now. The United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and even Israel have all accepted the claim that 3.8 million Palestinians live in the territories. And all have used that "fact," to varying degrees, to argue that Israel needs to have a separate Palestinian state and pronto.
It seems the only ones who knew that the population figures were bogus were the Palestinian leaders themselves. It was from analyzing numbers released by various Palestinian agencies, in fact, that the researchers discovered that the published count of 3.8 million was severely inflated.
The biggest chunk of the 1.4 million-person gap comes from two "revisions" made by the PA, first in 1997, and then in 2002. This was the cornerstone of efforts to show strength in numbers, since even the PA largely concurred with Israel's count of just over 2 million Palestinians in 1996. Israel had run all hospitals and schools and had issued ID cards to all adults, so that figure had solid foundations.
When the PA conducted its first-ever census in 1997, it counted a lot more 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds than Israel had birth records for (prior to stopping official counts in 1994 to prepare for handover of civilian authority). To account for the sudden discovery of more children than had been recorded born in years prior, the PA jacked up the birth rates for 1990-1993 and used similarly high statistics for 1994-1996. The PA "revision" for West Bank births, for example, was almost 50 percent higher than Israel's numbers for 1990-1993.
With a higher birth rate for the seven years starting in 1990, the PA then projected lofty birth rates for the years after 1997. But a funny thing happened from 1998 onward: The birth rates returned to the modest levels typical of modern societies.
Each year, the PA Ministry of Health releases birth statistics for Gaza and the West Bank. And each time the numbers fell substantially short of what the PA projected in 1997. To fix this "problem," the PA in 2002 "revised" birth records going back to 1997. And guess what? The "revised" numbers nearly matched the 1997 projections.
There are two other main areas where the PA practices fuzzy math, and both have to do with counting people who don't live in the territories. The PA counts people with Palestinian ID cards who have been living elsewhere for more than a year, and it also counts people it predicted would immigrate into the territories but never did.
The breakdown is as follows: Some 300,000 Palestinians are living abroad long-term; another 150,000 have moved into Israel; and though the PA predicted in 1997 that some 235,000 new immigrants would have arrived by now, Israeli border control records show net outward migration of more than 70,000, for a total gap of roughly 300,000.
For anyone who doubts the accuracy of the study, it is available for public consumption and inspection at www.pademographics.com.
The study already has at least one unlikely ally: the Palestine Central Elections Commission. According to the agency's own Oct. 14 press release, a million Palestinians had registered to vote, which represented two-thirds of adults. Of the 1.5 million eligible adults (not counting 110,000 eligible Jerusalem Arabs), the release stated that 200,000 were living abroad.
This PA-released figure meshes almost exactly with the study's final conclusion that the actual Palestinian population is approximately 2.4 million.
So now that at least part of the PA apparatus has (unintentionally) agreed with the new demographic study, the question becomes: Will the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Israel finally disown the myth of 3.8 million Palestinians?
Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.
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