Disarming the "Demographic Bomb"

By David Parsons, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem
March 24, 2006

Before Israelis go to the polls next week, it might help if all the Palestinians were to stand still for just a moment so they could be counted. The number of Arabs west of the Jordan River became a key point of contention in last year's disengagement debate, and continues to factor in the current campaign, focused as it is on further unilateral withdrawals from Judea/Samaria. If Arabs are about to overrun the Jews between the "river and the sea," Israeli voters need to know that - and fast!

For decades, counting 'Palestinians' anywhere in the world has proven tricky. UNRWA, the special United Nations agency that assists Palestinian 'refugees', has a long record of handouts to the dead and unborn. Even CNN got caught in the numbers game a few years back, when the network reported the Arab population in east Jerusalem was dwindling due to Israel's deliberate efforts to chase them out. Days later, however, a separate CNN report suggested east Jerusalem's Arab sector was growing so fast, Israel had little choice but to cede it to Palestinian control one day.

Palestinian demographics first came to the fore at the annual Herzliya conference - the 'Davos' of Israel's policymakers. Top Israeli demographers claimed that the Jewish and non-Jewish populations between the Jordan and Mediterranean were almost equal (3.8 million Palestinians plus 1.4 million Israeli Arabs and non-Jews versus 5.5 million Jews) and the higher Arab birth rate would soon threaten Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state.

Swayed by the perceived demographic time bomb, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - a legendary hawk - unveiled his disengagement plan for Gaza at the 2003 Herzliya conclave, arguing it would bolster Israel's security and economy while also preserving Israel's democracy and Jewish majority.

That logic, however, was shaken in January last year, when a group of amateur demographers published a report questioning the methods, assumptions and conclusions relied on by Sharon's government. At first, their findings were dismissed as 'political,' but after a year of refining their data, they gained enough credibility to be invited to Herzliya this January and more recently to a Congressional subcommittee hearing in Washington.

In both forums, team head Bennet Zimmerman presented their updated study concluding there is a 1.3 million-person gap between government estimates pre-disengagement and the current reality. In other words, the Palestinian Authority cooked the books and Israeli leaders fell for it.

Israel's last census in the West Bank and Gaza in 1996 found 2.1 million Arabs in the disputed territories. In 1997, the PA issued its first official headcount, claiming an additional 600,000 residents. Further, the PA projected the Palestinians would maintain the world's highest birth rates in coming years, while an estimated 50,000 Palestinians would 'return' to the territories per year from 2001 onward. In 2004, a PA census basically affirmed these liberal assessments.

The Zimmerman-led study, however, has exposed major flaws in the PA figures and projections, amounting to a 1.3 million over-count. They arrived at this number as follows:

Double Counting: They found that 230,000 Arabs in east Jerusalem are consistently doubled counted by both Israel and the PA, thus inflating the number of Arabs west of the Jordan by that amount. Over 100,000 more Palestinians who moved into Israel since 1997 are also doubled counted by both census bureaus and must be deleted by one.

Lower Birth Rates: The PA's fertility assumptions have not held up. Projected at over 6 births per woman in the West Bank and 8 in Gaza, current birth rates have fallen to half that. Family planning programs have doubled in Palestinian areas, more young girls are staying in school longer and starting careers, and even some Muslim clerics are urging lower growth rates. Finally, most Palestinians have gone from being rural poor to urban poor, a trend that is producing smaller families than expected throughout the region.

Migration Rates: Instead of an influx of 50,000 Palestinians per year since 2001, there has actually been a steady rate of emigration from the territories that Palestinian leaders are loath to admit. Since 1950, an average negative net of 10,000 Arabs per year have been leaving the West Bank and Gaza, a figure has held up over the Oslo era. This alone creates a minimum 60,000-person gap over recent years in the projected and actual annual migration rates. (Though not part of Zimmerman's study, an independent Norwegian firm estimates the Palestinian exodus in fact surged to a net loss of 50,000 in both 2001 and 2002.) At the moment, many Fatah loyalists connected to PA corruption are fleeing to Jordan.

Israeli demographers have added to the discrepancy by consistently under-estimating Jewish birth and aliya rates, which have turned out significantly higher than projected.

"They caught the demographic professionals asleep at the switch," Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt told the Herzliya gathering in late January.

A fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and considered Washington's leading demographer, his endorsement of the 1.3 million gap findings has undermined the conventional wisdom behind unilateral retreat. Those findings are especially relevant in the West Bank, whose fate is being determined in the current Israeli election.

Bottom line, since 1997 the West Bank growth rate has been actually lower than Israel's own growth rate - meaning the demographic time bomb is proving a dud in that area.

That does not mean, however, that the West Bank is ripe for the picking. There may not be as many Palestinians as thought, but the ones that are there are a lot younger and a lot more hostile than their parents. The fathers kept their house keys in their pockets and dreamed of returning to Jaffa, Ramla and Lod. The sons now dream of entering paradise with the skulls of Jews. Few Israelis relish the thought of patrolling their mean streets once more.

David Parsons is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

Copyright 2005 International Christian Embassy Jerusalem