A demographic time bomb in the Middle East

While the news headlines last week focused on Palestinian accession to the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, a less reported but equally critical development took place.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) released its annual population survey for 2014, in which it predicted that starting in 2016, the number of Palestinians and Jews living in Israel and the Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza "will total about 6.42 million each by the end of 2016 provided that current growth rates remain constant." The bureau also states: "The number of Palestinians in historical Palestine [Israel and the Palestinian territories] will total 7.14 million compared to 6.87 million Jews by the end of 2020."

The survey elicited two different reactions from Israelis. As Gianluca Mezzofiore reported in the International Business Times, the Palestinian "demographic bomb" seized Israeli right-wingers with panic at the looming prospect of Palestinians outnumbering Jewish Israelis in just two years. "The worst nightmare for Zionists and nationalists -- that of an Israeli state where an ethnic minority rules over a majority, raising echoes of Apartheid-like system -- seems to be approaching at an unrelenting pace," Mezzofiore wrote.

On the other hand, some Israeli commentators accused the PCBS of pumping its figures for political reasons. Former Israeli diplomat Yoram Ettinger told The Jerusalem Post the Palestinian data had been inflated by more than 1 million in the West Bank and by almost 400,000 in Gaza.

Ettinger, who is not a professional statistician but a diplomat and head of the Israeli government press office, bases his accusations on studies done by the American-Israel Demographic Study Group, which in turn relies on an almost-9-year-old Bar-Ilan University study, "The Million Person Gap: The Arab Population in the West Bank and Gaza." Many of that report's numbers were based on pre-1995 census figures.

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Experts have criticized Ettinger, saying his comments are not based on academic research. Professor Arnon Soffer from the geography department at the University of Haifa told The Jerusalem Post, "Today, the percentage of Jews is 52% and in 2024 it will be just 48%." Soffer accused Ettinger of not basing his work on academic research, but instead drawing conclusions to serve a right-wing political agenda.

Soffer is backed up by the studies of Hebrew University's Professor Sergio DellaPergola, one of Israel's most respected academic demographers. DellaPergola predicted in 2011 that the crossover point where Palestinians would outnumber Israeli Jews would come in 2015. DellaPergola's research concluded, "The unquestionably documented fact is that the Arab population in our area is growing and will continue to grow for several years at a pace faster than the Jewish population."

"If the Jewish population is considered in its core definition, without the over 300,000 non-Jewish members of households, and the over 222,000 foreign workers are added to the total population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza ... the Jewish percentage becomes 49.8%," it said.

"In other words, in 2010 there is no majority of Jews, by the core definition, over the whole territory of the former British Mandate plus the Golan Heights."

The CIA World Factbook, which does not cite sources, puts the population of the West Bank and Gaza at 2.7 million and 1.8 million, respectively -- 100,000 lower than the PCBS estimates.

Whatever the case, unless there is another massive influx of immigrants to Israel bolstering Israeli population figures and delaying the date when the Palestinian population overtakes the Jewish one, as happened with the immigration from the former Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990s of some 1 million Russians, it seems that the tipping point will be reached sooner rather than later.

Why does all this matter? Simply put, once the Palestinian population exceeds the Israeli Jewish one, you will have a situation where a minority population rules and occupies a majority one, akin to what existed in apartheid-era South Africa. Some would argue that apartheid -- a system of different rights for different ethnic groups -- already exists, but the resonance would be much more serious when it becomes minority rule.

Just as serious, continued occupation and rule over a Palestinian majority would make Israel face the harsh fact that it cannot remain a democratic majority-Jewish state while it continues to do so. If, on top of that, the Palestinians finally give up on the prospect of an end to the occupation and decide instead to seek equal rights and citizenship in an Israel that encompasses all of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, then Israel would by definition cease to be a Jewish state and would instead become one where Palestinian citizens are the majority.       

The demographic time bomb is ticking. Will Israel heed the warning?

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]


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