The 1.3-Million-Person Gap

The 1.3-Million-Person Gap

When counting the Palestinian population, say two demographers, the numbers don't add up.

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THE SOURCE: “Voodoo Demographics” by Bennett Zimmerman, Roberta Seid, and Michael L. Wise, in Azure, Summer 2006.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders sing from the same score on only one topic: demographics. The rapidly growing Palestinian population could eventually overwhelm Israeli Jews by sheer force of numbers. As the late Yasir Arafat said, “The womb of the Palestinian woman will defeat the Zionists.”

But the numbers behind the Palestinian “demographic time bomb” are inflated, contend Bennett Zimmerman, a former strategy consultant with Bain & Company, historian Roberta Seid, and Michael L. Wise, a specialist in mathematical modeling. The actual Palestinian Arab population is only 2.5 ­million—­not the 3.8 million reported by the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians are nowhere close to outnumbering Israel’s 5.5 million Jews, even if the Israeli Arab population of more than a million is ­included.

The 1.3-million-person gap began to open up in 1997, when the Pales­tinians conducted their only census, say the authors. In one dramatic leap, the official Palestinian population jumped by 30 percent. The new figure was achieved by ­double-­counting 210,000 Arabs who lived in ­Jerus­alem—­they had already been counted in Israel’s ­census—­and by adding at least 325,000 Palestinians who were living outside the Palestinian Authority’s territory, including many residing overseas. Since then, the Palestinian Authority has routinely increased its population estimates by 4.75 percent annually, based on high 1997 estimates of growth and immigration rates. In fact, Palestinian birthrates have dropped. The Palestinian Ministry of Health recorded 308,000 fewer births than were expected between 1997 and the end of 2003. And it’s a dirty little secret that more Palestinians are leaving the West Bank and Gaza than are moving in, thanks to ­Palestinian-­incited violence, the authors ­argue.

Demographic projections need not be demographic destiny, the authors say. It’s even possible that Israeli Jews could increase their share of the population in Israel and the West Bank. Palestinian fertility rates are falling while Jewish rates (already the highest in the advanced industrial world) are rising, and there’s always the possibility of a fresh influx of Jews from abroad akin to the unexpected arrival of one million Soviet ­Jews.

Palestine’s millions remain a challenge to Israel, the authors allow, but the “Arab demographic time bomb is, in many crucial respects, a dud.”

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