Demography and the Palestine Question (II)

Demography and the Palestine Question (II)

Demography and the Palestine Question (II)

UNRWA students participate in the UNRWA Summer Games event to set the new World Guinness Book of World Records title for the number of kites flying at the same times. The Breaking Kite festival gathered nearly 6,000 children and were the champions flying 3,710 kites, breaking the previous record of 967 kites set in Germany. 

29 July 2010
UNRWA Archive
Shareef Sarhan

The Palestinians who remained after the 1948 Palestine War in the new State of Israel (often as internal refugees) started to experience phenomenal population growth: on 1 January 2015 there were close to 1.4 million Palestinians in Israel (excluding annexed East Jerusalem), a ninefold increase since the Nakba. However, this growth must be put in perspective: the population of Jewish Israelis increased just as much, reaching about 6 million people in 2015, also a ninefold increase during the period 1948–2015. More than 3 million Jews from all around the globe arrived in Israel, though this refers to the gross (not net) number of immigrants, of which a large part did not settle permanently in Israel. It is estimated that the Israeli diaspora totals well over 700,000, if not close to a million.

The Palestinians of Israel tried to counter or resist this extraordinary flood of immigration by maintaining a demographic balance at the cost of one of the highest birth and natural population growth rates in the world. They currently constitute 18 percent of the Israeli population (and not 20 percent, as is often claimed, because Israeli statistics include the Palestinians of East Jerusalem after annexation by Israel in 1967).

The population growth of Palestinians should not be seen as the result of a well-structured pro-natalist policy. During the British Mandate and after 1948, the high birth rate of Palestinians was more due to their collective unconscious telling them that they needed numbers in order to persevere on their land. Of course there was no government structure to encourage this trend through pro-natalist policies. For Jews, on the other hand, the State of Israel implemented a whole series of measures (both explicit and implicit) that were necessary for maintaining a high Jewish fertility rate and even to increase it.     

The Palestinians of Israel reached their highest fertility rate during 1960–65, with an average of 8.1 children per woman (9.2 for Muslims, 4.7 for Christians, and 7.5 for Druze). Since then it has declined steadily, except during the period of the first intifada when, in unison with the Palestinians of the occupied territories, population growth once again became a means for a minority to persevere and to affirm itself. Today, for the Palestinians of Israel, the notion of bringing many children into the world as an act of militancy to support the struggle has become a relic of the past. After several years, when Palestinians changed the ways they “negotiate their reproductive decisions,”1 babies were no longer being seen as a national instrument and the fertility rate for Palestinian women in Israel was to plunge irremediably from 4.67 children at the end of the last century to 3.35 in 2013.  At the same time, the fertility rate of Israeli Jews strongly continued its upward trend, although already high for a developed country, increasing from 2.62 children in 1995–99 to 3.05 in 2013. This rate is double that of any developed European country or an Arab country like Lebanon, and 50 percent higher than that of Morocco or Tunisia.  At present, Palestinian and Jewish fertility rates differ only slightly.

In the occupied territories, the fertility rate has been maintained at a high level for a long time. During the first intifada, it was particularly strong among the most educated – and the most politicized – Palestinian women, and higher than that of illiterate women, who were also less aware politically. During the second intifada, however, this trend was inversed, bringing about a sharp decline of the fertility rate. While it remained high until 2000, with 6 children per woman, it then dropped to 4 children according to MICS3 (the 2010 UNICEF-developed Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys). From then on, pro-natalist watchwords fell on deaf ears in the face of economic difficulties, with the territories sealed off, unemployment rising, and the standard of living falling. Demographically there appeared a divergence between individual and social values, with couples wanting smaller families in the hope of ensuring a better future for their children, rather than having larger families in order to support the national cause.

In areas of friction between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, the demographic superiority of the Jews is indisputable. While the fertility rate was still high for Palestinians in Jerusalem in 2013 with 3.35 children per woman, it was considerably higher for Jews throughout the Holy City, reaching 4.20; for Jewish settlers alone in East Jerusalem this rate was almost 5.5 children. The same is true for Jewish colonies in the West Bank, where the fertility rate in 2010 was 5.02, compared to 4.0 for Palestinians (MICS3 survey of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics). The exceptionally high fertility rate of the Jewish settlers is of course due to a nationalistic and religious expansionist ideology, supported by colossal subsidies provided by the Israeli state or by parastatal organizations in the form of either direct or disguised aid. The Palestinians thus find themselves facing an expansionist and militant Jewish demography at a time when they are no longer inclined to counter it by having many children themselves. Only in Gaza is the Palestinian fertility rate still very high, but no higher than that of the Israeli settlers.

The charts below provide projections for the population of historical Palestine (Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza) covering the period 2015–48. In 2048, the total population of Jews and Palestinians living in Mandate Palestine is expected to reach almost 20 million, an impressive figure when considering the small total land area. The Jews, who have a relative majority at present, are expected to become a minority by 2048 (mostly due to the strong population growth of Palestinians in Gaza), with their population totaling 9.2 million compared to 10.7 million Palestinians. However, the most significant lessons can be drawn from the demographic shifts within each population group.

First should be noted the systematic conquest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem by Israeli settlers.  Numbering more than 650,000 today, their population could grow to 1.7 million by 2048 with their high fertility rate and exuberant immigration; if they do, they could represent more than a fourth of the population of the West Bank. In addition to the evident threat that this colonization poses for Palestinians, the steep increase in the proportion of settlers within the Jewish population of Israel – from 9 percent to 19 percent by 2048 – is likely to have serious consequences for Israel due to the economic and political cost this demographic shift entails: the strengthening of the demographic base of the political right wing, and in particular of the extreme right, in public opinion and in the Knesset is an example.

Palestinians are also expected to experience a demographic change loaded with strong political connotations: the shifting of the center of gravity of the Palestinian population from the West Bank to Gaza, from 39 percent at present to parity by 2048: 48 percent compared to 52 percent in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, but 51 percent compared to 49 percent without East Jerusalem. The distinctiveness of Gaza, in particular in the domain of elections, could thus be strengthened. It is necessary to note also that the demographic center of gravity for Palestinians could shift to historical Palestine as compared to the Palestinian diaspora (see the charts on projections of population and the two below).


  • 1. Rhoda Kanaaneh, Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, p. 65.
Selected Bibliography: 

Courbage,  Youssef.  “L'étonnant renversement des démographies israélienne et palestinienne (1948–2048). ” In Dominique Vidal, ed., Palestine Israël: un état, deux Etats? Arles: Actes Sud et Institut des études palestiniennes, 2011.

Courbage, Youssef. “La démographie des Palestiniens.” In Farouk Mardam-Bey and Elias Sanbar, Le droit au retour. Arles: Actes Sud et Institut des études palestiniennes, 2002.

Courbage, Youssef. “Les députés israéliens et leurs enfants: une étude démographique de la Knesset.”  Revue d'études palestiniennes, no.21 (Autumn 1999): 58–81.

Fargues, Philippe. “Protracted National Conflict and Fertility Change among Palestinians and Israelis in the Twentieth Century.” Population and Development Review 26, no.3 (September 2000): 441–482.

Kanaaneh, Rhoda. Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Palestine in Figures – 2010. Ramallah: PCBS, 2011.

Portugese, Jacqueline. Fertility Policy in Israel: The Politics of Religion, Gender, and Nation. Westport: Praeger, 1998.