Friday, June 12, 2009

Demographic warfare and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Guest Post by Aslak Berg

With the Obama administration making a renewed effort to bring about peace in the Middle East, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the conflict on this blog since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more than any other conflict today, revolves around demography. Demography has been at the core of the conflict ever since Zionist immigration to Palestine began around a hundred years ago since the core of the Zionist vision is a democratic, Jewish state. Now, for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic, it must necessarily have a Jewish majority, which makes the large and growing Palestinian population rather inconvenient from a Zionist perspective. From a Palestinian perspective, a Palestinian majority would signify some sort of victory either in the form of an end to the Jewish state or forcing Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. Thus, in this conflict, demography really is destiny and has been used so consciously by both sides (on the Israeli side by promoting immigration of Jews and emigration of Arabs, on the Palestinian side simply by relying on high fertility rates. Arafat declared once that the Palestinian womb was his most powerful weapon, and birth rates actually ticked up a bit during the first Intifada in the late 80’s) . This article will focus on the demographic situation “between the river and the sea” as they say in the region, i.e. in Israel proper and the occupied territories. You should note that by focusing on this area, I exclude the Palestinian diaspora living as refugees in surrounding countries. Including them would obviously give us a large Palestinian majority. In the end, I hope to use the demographic data to give indications of what underpins Israeli policy and in particular religious Zionist plans for the area.

Israel

After the 1948 war (Israeli War of Independence/the Nakba, depending on your preference) and the Palestinian exodus, there was a large Jewish majority with about a million Jews and about 160 000 non-Jews which at the time meant mostly Arabs. However, the Palestinians had an extraordinarily high fertility rate, in particular, Muslim Palestinians had a fertility rate approaching 10 in the 60’s. Thus, despite millions of Jewish immigrants since 1948 the Arabs increased their percentage of the population from 15% to 20%. There are currently 1.5 million Arabs in Israel, 5,6 million Jews (including West Bank settlers) and about 300,000 “others”, who are mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union that are affiliated with Jews but not Jewish according to religious law (e.g. Jewish father, but not Jewish mother, spouses etc.). With the reservoirs for potential Jewish immigration now largely dried out, one might think that the Arab percentage would increase.

However, Israeli Jewish fertility is exceptional in the Western world in that fertility has stabilized at a very high level and now actually increased, mostly due to the ultra-Orthodox and other religious Jews. Meanwhile, Palestinian fertility and Muslim fertility in particular has plummeted. If current trends continue (always a big if), Jewish fertility rates will actually surpass Palestinian fertility rates in five years or so.



Since the Palestinian population in Israel is still young and there are therefore more and more Palestinian women in fertile ages, the effect of declining fertility rate on births has been that the number of Arab births in Israel peaked at 41 400 in Israel and has since stabilized around the 39 000 mark since. In the same period, the number of Jewish births increased from 91 200 in 2001 to 112 800 in 2008 (this number increases to 117 800 if you include the other category, which perhaps one should). Thus, the percentage of Jewish births bottomed out in 2001 at around 66% and has now increased to 72%, not including others, and the percentage of Arab births peaked the same year at 30% and has now declined to around 25%.




Thus the Arab population within Israel is likely to peak below 25% and the Jewish majority inside Israel seems secure. Now let’s see what happens if one includes the occupied territories.

West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Because of the division between Hamas and Fatah, the 2007 Palestinian census was only conducted in the West Bank. It found that the population of the West Bank was about 2.3 million, not including Israeli settlers. Now, add the 1.5 million Arabs within Israel at the time and subtract the about 200 000 Arab inhabitants of East Jerusalem that are included in both counts you end up with 3.6 million Arabs in Israel and the West Bank or about 39% of the total population. Unfortunately, for Gaza there is only an estimate of around 1.5 million that is based on a projection of the 1997 census made by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. The same projection proved wildly optimistic for the West Bank, projecting 2.6 million inhabitants in 2007 instead of 2.3. Since there is no reliable estimate, we can set the estimate at 1.4, which is more likely than not to be on the high end. The total Palestinian population in the occupied territories for 2007 is thus 3.7 or 5 million Palestinians including Israel, i.e. 46% of the total population of around 11 million.

Like inside Israel, Palestinians in the occupied territories have in the past had extraordinarily high fertility rates, although population growth has been to some extent reduced by very high rates of emigration to Jordan, the Gulf Countries and the West. Total fertility rates were estimated to be 7 and 5.6 in Gaza and the West Bank respectively. There is fairly conclusive evidence that fertility rates have declined since then. A 2006 survey estimated rates of 5.4 in the Gaza strip and 4.2 in the West Bank. Also like in Israel, the reduction in fertility rates have been compensated by increasing numbers of fertile women, leading to a stabilization in the number of births. The 2007 census indicates that the number of births have stabilized at in the low 60,000’s while school records from the Palestinian ministry of education seems to indicate a stabilization in the low 40’000’s in the Gaza strip. Add in the 39,000 or so Arab births in Israel and you get about 140,000 Palestinian births annually between the river and the sea compared to 117,000 “Jewish and other” births, with the former number stabilizing and the latter number rising.

Population growth ultimately depends not only on births and fertility, but also on deaths and the Jewish death rate is much higher than the Palestinian one because the Jewish population is much older. But I’ve focused on births because in the very long run it is more important, coupled with migration numbers.

Implications for the peace process

So what does all of this mean for the peace process? Well, for one thing, it means that a (slim) Palestinian majority seems almost inevitable, perhaps as early as in the next decade. It also means that this majority may not last forever if Palestinian emigration continues, the Jewish fertility rate continues to hold up and the Palestinian fertility rate continues to decline, although for the Israelis to count on all of these assumptions to hold would be dicey at best. I’ve not mention Jewish immigration here because it seems that Jewish net migration is now more or less zero, but that could obviously also change. However, if I were a religious Zionist (I’m definitely not), focused on grabbing as much of Eretz Israel as possible while maintaining a Jewish majority., I would do more or less precisely what Israel has been doing

• Withdraw from Gaza as much as possible since without the Gaza strip, the Jewish majority in Israel and the West Bank seems secure (again if emigration and fertility decline continues)
• Continue supporting the settlements to secure as much land as possible and help encourage Palestinians to emigrate.
• Delay a solution as much as possible in order to see if the demographic winds continue to turn in Israel’s favour.
• Encourage Palestinian division and the gap between Gaza and the West Bank
• If demographic trends do not continue, and there is an uptick in Palestinian births, only then give up most of the West Bank to secure a Jewish majority

Now, most Israelis aren’t religious Zionists, but in the end, these are the only ones in Israel who know exactly what they want and how to get it so they end up setting the agenda for all of Israel.

If the gap between Gaza and the West Bank is cemented and demographic trends continue, one could imagine a city-state of Gaza and an Israeli absorption of the West Bank. This is not what the Palestinian people want and is probably not what most Israelis would prefer, but the Palestinian leadership have never missed an opportunity to let their people down and the religious Zionists always seem able to set the agenda in Israel. In the end, if no peace agreement is made soon, Israel might be able to perpetuate and normalize their hold of the West Bank, leaving only a poor and overcrowded Gaza strip as the Palestinian state.


If not specified, all numbers are from the Israeli and the Palestinian Central Bureaus of Statistics.

20 comments:

joe said...

"religious Zionists always seem able to set the agenda in Israel."

Such a ridiculous statement about Israeli politics belie both your own political stance (which is obvious and should have been clearly stated at the outset) and your ignorance of Israeli society and, I think, of the region in general.

It makes me wonder how trustworthy you demographic analysis is.

Aslak said...

Well, perhaps I should be more specific. Religious zionists do seem to be able to set the agenda for the West Bank, almost all of the time.

There have been a couple of exceptions to this, notably Ariel Sharon's 2005 diseengagement plan when four settlements were abandoned, but it has been generally true. As for my demographic analysis and alleged ignorance of the region, I stand by my numbers and can certainly provide sources for all of them.

My political stance is really limited to advocating a two-state solution as the least bad feasible option for everyone. This would inevitably imply dismantling some settlements, so in that sense I think that religious zionism in form of the settler movement is incredibly damaging. I think the Palestinians were fools for rejecting the Taba plan even though I understand their reasons for it. I don't think it would be that bad for the West Bank palestinians to become part of Israel, the losers here would be the Gazans and the Palestinian diaspora.

There, I think that should clear up my political stance, which I actually think is not that far out of the mainstream, even in Israel.

Aslak said...

I'm sorry, I said Taba, but I meant Olmert's proposal a couple of years ago

J said...

Very good news. May I comment that you exaggerate the capacity of Israeli Right to carry out such a precise strategy as you describe. Aleway! Or am I underestimating them? On the other hand, you are the first demographer without long term predictions. What about 2020? 2050? Would you agree that Palestinian fertility will collapse a la Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece? That the demographic conflict has forced us to develope a child-friendly society and soon we shall see traditional Jewish fertility rates?

Aslak said...

J,
Everything in the article depends on current trends continuing, Palestinian fertility declining and Jewish fertility remaining stable, because that's what I think most most likely. Evidently, that may or may not be true. I'm sceptical toward long-term projection precisely because assumptions like the ones I'm making often turn out wrong. We can say with reasonable certainty that by 2020 there will be a very small Palestinian majority. If my assumptions are right, the Palestinian percentage of the population between the river and the sea will probably have peaked by 2050 as Palestinian society will have aged sufficiently by then for the Palestinian death rate to catch up with the Jewish one. It obviously remains to be seen. I do think that Palestinian fertility (and fertility in other Arab countries) is headed towards southern European levels for a number of reasons, having mostly to do with both gender roles and economic reasons. I'm planning a post on the subject later on, but if you look at countries like Lebanon and Tunisia, they're certainly at the forefront of this development.

It's an interesting question whether high fertility in the region are driven by the conflict. If I had to venture a guess, I would say it probably has a role on both sides, but that the Israelis have the economic resources to sustain it while the Palestinians don't. This is based mainly on the fact that is is a bit odd that fertility in the Holy land is so much higher than other countries in the region. This is all just a guess though, there's no scientific inquiry behind it. It certainly seems like Israeli family policy is in part driven by demographic concerns.

Israel does as you probably know also have other demographic concerns related to the number of ultra-Orthodox and religious Jews versus secular ones, which could be the subject of an interesting post in itself.

As to whether all of this is good news, well I guess it depends on your perspective, doesn't it?

Aslak said...

As to whether the Israeli right is carrying out a precise strategy based on my numbers, you're probably right that they don't - but what my numbers indicate is that they can win the demographic war if they exclude Gaza -and trying to isolate Gaza and foment division between it and the West Bank does seem to have been their strategy.

As for West Bank strategy, it's more likely driven by religious ideology than anything else but my numbers indicate that they might win the day unless the Palestinians end their divisions or a peace agreement is reached soon, which right now seems unlikely despite Obama's effort.

LB said...

"Religious zionists do seem to be able to set the agenda for the West Bank, almost all of the time."

Aslak, that statement seems to based on misconception that most Jews over the green line are religious, which untrue. They are a significant minority, but nowhere near a majority. I think it would be interesting if you did a post about the demographics of the west bank. For example, over the past year I believe that Jewish growth (including immigration) exceeded the Arab growth rate by ~1.5 percentage points.

Aslak said...

LB,
It's true that the religious ones are the minority but it seems they are the ones who have both the ideology and the organization to influence events. A post about West Bank demography seems like a good idea, look for it to appear sometime over the weekend.

J said...

Israel does as you probably know also have other demographic concerns related to the number of ultra-Orthodox and religious Jews versus secular ones

Aslak, I dont think here is anything about Jews that a "goy" cannot understand, in fact, I think they understand us better than we ourselves do. But here you see picture through secular eyes alone, if I may guess, through the eyes of Western media correspondents in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Who tend to form their impressions in the air-conditioned darkened bars of the large hotels. Israeli Jewish population is a continuation of traditional Jewish communities of Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Hungary, Romania. Ucraine. Which are extremely religious by European Christian standards. The proportion of Israeli Jews proceeding from communities who have undergone a secularization process, say the United States, Germany, Italy, France, etc. is minuscule. The only large secular block is the immigrants from Russia, which are assimilating very fast into the Israeli majority. Once the resistance of the rabbinate to their assimilation is removed (which is apparently has been solved by the current coalition between Yvette Liberman and the leasership of Shas, the Sepharadi ultraOrthodox party), there will be no more secular Jews in Israel. I mean, in any important numbers. In Israel, even homosexuals are establishing families and having children and celebrating the Seder. What seculars?

Tamara said...

J, while there are certainly high percentages of the population participating in cultural jewish practices, like Seder, Bar Mitzva or even a Yom Kippur fast, most of us still identify as secular as far as political and social (rather than personal, religeos) issues are concerned - like secular schools, civil weddings, keeping the shabbat, etc.

My evidence is mostly anecdotal, but there does seem to be a higher birthrate even among totally secular Jewish women, which seems at first glance like it should be down there in the American or even European leves.

Also, a nitpick: I don't think its numerically significant enough to sway the point of your argument, but were you counting Druze in "other"?

Aslak said...

Tamara,
The Israeli Bureau of Statistics counts the Druze as part of the Arab population - there are now about 120 000 Druze with about 2 500 births annually -they obviously have a somewhat different relationship to the state of Israel than other Arabs.

As for the relation between different groups of Jews, I don't really know enough about it to commment - What I can say is that all the evidence I've seen indicates that even secular Jews have fertility rates above replacement rate so significantly higher than US or European fertility rate. Obviously, the fertility rate of the religious population is much higher than that again -I've heard that the Haredi population have fertility rates around 7, which really is extraordinary in a developed country.

CTyankee said...

Following on the last few comments, it would be interesting to at least obtain some estimate of how the Haredi birth rates stack up to the remainder of the Jewish population.

Wikipedia says the Haredim are about 10 percent of the Jewish population in Israel. If their birth rate is, as you suggest, around 7, then the remainder of the entire population, in order to reach an overall birth rate of 2.75, needs to be close to 2.2. Once Muslims are subtracted, that leaves non-Haredi Jews around 2.0 (my math may be a little off here).

Anyways, from the figures it looks like the Haredis could be responsible for as many as 28 percent of Jewish births in Israel, and over 1 out of 5 for Israel as a whole. I have to wonder if the uptick in Jewish fertility during the last 10 years is due to the Haredi births steadily asserting themselves against a non-Haredi rate that has now bottomed out.

Aslak said...

CTyankee,
I think I would agree with your general idea that the uptick is largely driven by the Haredi but with a couple of caveats.
One is that the fertility rate of the Haredis have actually been declining recently although obviously that could be more than compensated for by the increasing proportion of Haredi women in the fertile age bracket.

Also, if the Haredi are 10 percent of the population, their percentage of women of childbearing age is likely to be below that (although it's obviously growing). It's the number of women 15-45 that really matters, not the total population.

Also, total fertility rate for Israel in 2007 was 2.9, not 2.75. All this suggests that non-Haredi Jews also have fertility rates above replacement rate -although as I said I think your general idea is right -it would be interesting to get firm estimates although unfortunately the Israeli Bureau of Statistics does not differentiate between Jews in their statistics.

J said...

Tamara,

cultural jewish practices, like Seder, Bar Mitzva or even a Yom Kippur fast...

Are these cultural practices? If so, we basically agree and our differences are in the semantics - what is cultural and what is religious. Since I am of the idea that most of the haredim are, deep down, agnostic and dont really believe in the existence of God, all we have is cultural practices.

OK, so it is culture and not religion. Good for me.

Israel cannot develope a truely secular society since we are immersed in the Middle East, which is undergoing a strong movement toward religion. We cannot be isolated from our neighborhood. On the contrary, our religious leaders are striving to show their Muslim counterparts that we are practicing God's word more fanatically than they do, shaming them all the time.

I think traditional elements are re-asserting themselves in the Jewish population. Observing the protests against "religious dictatorship" like these days in Jerusalem, you cant hear a world against Jewish religion. The dispute is about who is more correctly religious. It is a fight for power between two factions.

Tamara said...

J,
on the one hand, the rigorous, ideological anti-religeon of, say, early kibbutzniks, may be well and solidly dead as a movement in Israeli society, but I don't think the willingness of secular jews to have various jewish cultural practices translates - for the most part, and bit on this later - into any ideological afffinity for policies of the more strictly religeous. Nobody in the hubbub in Jerusalem is doing it in the name of the *personal* right to be a jew or an atheist or a buddhist, for that matter - its all about our public spaces. (It reminds me of the conflict over the gay pride march in Jerusalem - the same gays, who as you mentioned, have a seder and bar mitzva their kids.)

I do agree with you that the general religeoising trend of the middle east certainly has not passed over Israel - I had a lot of opportunity to see religeous groups - Shas, Habadniks, Breslavs, Bnei Akiva, etc - stepping up and taking responsibility, particulalry of kids and teens, in bad neighbourhoods and, basically, winning coverts. It led to situations like my 15 year old chanichot, in pounds of makeup, piercings, birth control pills and micro mini skirts, telling me they'll "talk to the rabbanit" before making even the smallest decision.

Aslak said...

I was going to write about settler demography, but it seems like this excellent article in the Jerusalem post did it for me:

Highly recommended

joe said...

Aslak: Well, I'm glad to know that you got your numbers right at least.

I've been thinking about your comment on the settler's power and I've come to the conclusion that you are seeing this issue in a manner which is the exact opposite of political reality in Israel.

Based on the history of Religious-Zionism I would say that this small minority has been used- and abused - by both political parties throughout the years, beginning in their nurturing by Peres in the Seventies as part of a feud with Rabin.
The Left has been particularly adept in demonizing the Religious-Zionists to gather support for their agenda and the Likud has always marginalized their representatives, givng them worthless portfolios.

In public life they have no influence - no one hears their radio,or reads their papers. They do not have any influential research tanks and even their Rabbis are extremely split among themselves, not to mention their is a pretty large number of center-left RZs.
Economically they do not have clout at all and they miss out on many large contracts
because they are religious.Being religious, their art is almost non-existent so they do not have any cultural influence either.

I simply cannot see evidence of this small and weak sector being of consequence.I suspect that the idea that they have power is a result of a superb propaganda campaign conducted by the Israeli Left and media (redundant?) - the main daily papers (and TV) in Israel.

As to secular and religious - it is true that in many surveys Israelis seem to adhere to religious cultural practices. A large majority celebrate the holidays and about half keep kashrut.
However, I think that there is a big difference in Israel between what people practice in their personal lives and what they want in the public sphere.

Privately, people want to do whatever they want but they realize that to continue live in freedom we cannot allow Israel to turn into a religious state.

This was one of the main reasons in the Left, at the time, for negotiating peace with Arafat - the idea (openly stated by many leaders in the Left) was that religious jews are the real enemies of the state and a peace will deal them a big blow and also turn Israeli Arabs into allies of the Israeli secular project.

In hindsight, things haven't turned that bad, from such a point of view.

Unknown said...

According to the CIA Factbook the TFR in the West bank is 3.2, which probably makes it the same as for Israeli Arabs without the Bedouin sector. The Bedouins make all the difference. You should have also covered the work of Ettinger and his guys who claim that the Palestinians have been systematically inflating their demographic statistics. Their work seems to have been endorsed by Nicholas Eberstadt or so they claim. By the way I am occasionally writing about Israeli demographics too. Check this if you are interested.

Unknown said...

Aslak said...

J,
Everything in the article depends on current trends continuing, Palestinian fertility declining and Jewish fertility remaining stable, because that's what I think most most likely. Evidently, that may or may not be true. I'm sceptical toward long-term projection precisely because assumptions like the ones I'm making often turn out wrong. We can say with reasonable certainty that by 2020 there will be a very small Palestinian majority. If my assumptions are right, the Palestinian percentage of the population between the river and the sea will probably have peaked by 2050 as Palestinian society will have aged sufficiently by then for the Palestinian death rate to catch up with the Jewish one. It obviously remains to be seen. I do think that Palestinian fertility (and fertility in other Arab countries) is headed towards southern European levels for a number of reasons, having mostly to do with both gender roles and economic reasons. I'm planning a post on the subject later on, but if you look at countries like Lebanon and Tunisia, they're certainly at the forefront of this development
.

By the way, I have the same feeling regarding the Arab/Muslim fertility in the Middle East in general. I would identify several factors that may lead to this.

First of all we are now approaching the point when the first Arab/Persian version of the Western Me generation is coming of age. I mean young people who grew up in two-three child families which are rapidly becoming norm in Iran, Tunisia, Turkey and elsewhere. This should be a very different generation, much more individualistic, selfish and self centered. The most intense butt shaking now taking place on Arab TVs may be a foretaste of the things to come.

Two, almost everywhere women seem to be outperforming men in university enrollments and graduations. In some Gulf countries the ratio is to three to one. For such intensely male dominated societies this is no small matter. The institution of family and other social structures may take such a battering from this that they may disintegrate.

Three, global warming is destroying the countryside around the region and migration to cities is intensifying. Urban lifestyles are detrimental for demographics.

Four, the current religious renaissance should run out of steam at some point. I am giving it no more than a decade more. This region has basically accomplished demographic transition in conditions of the most relentless surge of fundamentalism. When the religion retreats, the birth rates may find themselves completely on the floor.

And I can bring forth a couple of more factors. The bottom line is that while in popular perception the Middle East and Islam are synonyms of insane demographics, the region is actually heading towards absolutely massive demographic implosion, compared to which what's happening these days in Europe will look like peanuts.

Benj said...

My comment is a bit late but do you know about the study that said that the number of Palestinian has been widely exaggerated and the real numbers are 1.5 million in the West Bank (not including Jerusalem) and 1.1 in Gaza ?
That would change a lot.