Demography and the Palestine Question (I)

Demography and the Palestine Question (I)

Illegal Immigration (II)

At the end of World War II , the Zionist leadership decided to undermine the British regime in Palestine as a prelude to the establishment of a Jewish state. One of its chosen tactics was the sponsorship of illegal mass Jewish immigration into the country over and above the official postwar annual quota. Between 1946 and 1948, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants were transported to Palestine from European ports. This scene was photographed at Haifa in the summer of 1946.

Imperial War Museum collection

Jews had settled in Palestine long before Theodor Herzl formulated his ideas on Zionism in The State of the Jews (1896). A small core group of Palestinian Jews were descendants of Jews who had survived the destruction of the Second Temple during the first century, but most were descendants of deportees from the Spanish Reconquista during the sixteenth century. In all, there were some 13,000 Palestinian Jews in 1852, representing about 4 percent of the population of Palestine, concentrated mostly in the districts of Jerusalem , Acre , and Nablus . In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, there was a substantial immigration of enterprising Jews who bought Palestinian land, making it possible for the Jewish population there to grow substantially faster than the indigenous Muslim and Christian population (Table 1).

Between 1850 and 1914, the demographic advantage enjoyed by the Jewish community in Palestine expressed itself by the immigration of more than 84,000 Jews (though not all of them settled in Palestine permanently).  Furthermore, their natural population growth (due to high birth and low mortality rates) reinforced their presence in Palestine. This demographic advantage is important even today, more than compensating for the decline in Jewish immigration to Israel at the turn of the twenty-first century.

At the start of World War I , Palestine was home to 60,000 Jews, of which 39,000 had Ottoman citizenship, compared to more than 700,000 Ottomans who were Muslim or Christian  (Table 2).

The Jewish presence in Palestine was smaller than in Iraq or Yemen and a bit bigger than in Syria and Lebanon . While the war had a major impact on the demography of Palestinian Jews, this loss was much less than that suffered by other Muslim or Christian Palestinians.

The Balfour Declaration (1917) was the founding act that made it possible for a population of 60,000 Jews in pre-Mandate, Ottoman Palestine to grow into a population of 700,000 Israelis in 1948. This tenfold increase was much less due to natural population growth than to immigration. In the 1930s, the Jews who had been persecuted in Nazi Germany and Europe, and for whom salvation through emigration to elsewhere in Europe or to the New World was refused, streamed into Palestine, which let in a quarter of a million refugees (Table 3).

While there was no move to push out Palestinians at first, the massive arrival of the immigrants created extreme tension, which ultimately led to the expulsion/deportation of the Palestinians in 1948.

Palestinian resistance to the confiscation of power by the British Mandate and the appropriation of land by Jews (even if they had bought it and sometimes at a high price) reached a peak during two periods: the riots of 1920–21 and especially during the al-Thawra al-filastiniyya al-kubra of 1936–39. However, neither the first nor the second uprisings could overthrow the British Mandate or halt Jewish immigration, which was an integral part of the mission given to the Mandate. The reaction of the Palestinian people thus took on a different form: at first political, it eventually became demographic.

Thanks to an exceptional statistical system, the British Mandatory could collect year after year information about the number of births and deaths among the main religious groups in Palestine, which was very new for the region. These statistics reveal that the natural increase of the Palestinian population, regardless of religion and in spite of a high mortality rate, reached record high levels and surpassed that of the Jewish immigrants (Table 4).

The British statistics become particularly significant, however, when compared with those of neighboring Arab countries, less threatened by a foreign presence. These comparisons show that during the Mandate period, consciously or not, Palestinians resisted by creating large, extended families. Their birth rate surpassed and then remained almost constantly at the highest level in the world. It ranged from a low of 45 per 1,000 in 1942 to a high of 60 per 1,000 (in 1928 and 1930), with an average of 50 per 1,000, or about 9 children per woman. In comparison, the Egyptian birthrate was about 44 per 1,000 and that of Syria, 40. Since the Mandate period, the weapons used by the different parties involved in the conflict have become more and more sophisticated. But this “conventional” weapon of demographic growth, this “revenge of the cradles” so evident under the Mandate, has endured to this day.  

The impertinent demography of the Palestinian population was brutally obliterated in only a few weeks by the 1948 War . The deportation of some 750,000 Palestinians reduced the number of remaining Palestinians, who were to become Israeli citizens, to only 156,000 in the new territorial entity, in which were living 700,000 Jews at that time.

Selected Bibliography: 

Courbage, Youssef. “Al-rihan al-dimoghrafi fi-l-sira’ ‘ala hawiiyyat Filastine” [The Demographic Challenge in the Dispute for the Identity of Palestine]. Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, no.53 (Summer 2005): 68–91.

Courbage, Youssef, and Philippe Fargues. Chrétiens et Juifs dans l’islam arabe et turc. Paris: Fayard, 1992. (See chapter on “Israël et la démographie palestinienne.”)

Khalidi, Walid, ed. All that Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.

Kossaifi, Georges. “L’enjeu démographique en Palestine.” In Camille Mansour, ed., Les Palestiniens de l’intérieur. Washington, DC: Les livres de la Revue d’études palestiniennes, 1989.