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By 2035, Jewish population in Israel/Palestine is projected at 46 percent

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Israeli soldiers detaining Palestinian children in Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, in 2012

Israeli soldiers detaining Palestinian children in Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, in 2012

A large amount of news, analysis and political rhetoric is disseminated daily about the current American-initiated Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. However, comparatively little attention — and, hence, insufficient understanding — is given to a  critical aspect of the decades-old conflict: population growth. Differential rates of population growth are redefining the relative demographic standing of Arab-Israelis, Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians in the region, pointing to a challenging demographic future for the Jewish-Israeli majority and affecting key negotiating concerns, positions and strategies, including establishing borders, the status of settlements and the return of Palestinian refugees.

The tract of land at the center of the conflict — the former British Mandate of Palestine – is relatively small. The combined surface area of Israel and the State of Palestine (the Gaza Strip plus the West Bank) is about the size of Haiti and can be fit into Texas about 25 times. The relative proportions of this combined territory are 79 percent Israel and 21 percent Palestine territory (20 percent West Bank and 1 percent Gaza Strip).

The total number of people residing in this tract is also not large. Fewer than 13 million — numerically equivalent to 4 percent of the US population — live there. As is widely acknowledged, the central defining characteristic of this population is its religious affiliation. A brief look at the past provides insight into the demographic status and growth of the major religious groups in this troubled land.

With the establishment of the British Mandate of Palestine after World War I, the first British census of Palestine in 1922 enumerated a total population of about 750,000, of which 78 percent were Muslim, 11 percent Jewish and 10 percent Christian (Table 1). Nearly 25 years later, before the United Nations’ partition of the Mandate for Palestine, in 1947, the population had grown to nearly 1.8 million, with 60 percent Muslim, 31 percent Jewish and 8 percent Christian.

Population of Israel, State of Palestine and British Palestine by Religious Group: 1922-2035, in millions

The estimated 1950 population residing in the former British Mandate of Palestine exceeded 2 million, representing an almost equal balance of Jews (50 percent) and Muslims (47 percent) and Christians, shrinking to 3 percent (Table 1). Because of different rates of population growth among the religious groups, especially with large-scale immigration, the Jewish proportion of this combined population continued to increase throughout the second half of the 20th century.

At the start of the 21st century, the Jewish proportion peaked at 53 percent, followed by Muslims at 45 percent and Christians at 2 percent. Today, the Jewish proportion represents half of the resident population in Israel and the State of Palestine. However, if Palestinian refugees living in camps in neighboring countries are taken into account, the majority of the population, 53 percent, would be Muslim.

In 1947, Mandatory Palestine was partitioned by the UN General Assembly into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab. Three years later, the population of Israel increased to 1.3 million, with 87 percent being Jewish Israelis. The population of Palestinians living in the State of Palestine (the Gaza Strip and West Bank) was slightly less than a million. Additionally, an estimated 500,000 Palestinians were displaced as a result of war in nearby countries, mainly to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Because of high levels of Jewish immigration to Israel, especially from the former Soviet Union, as well as high birth rates, the population of Israel grew to more than 6 million by the close of the 20th century, but the proportion of Jewish people declined to 78 percent, a 9 percentage-point drop from 1950. In contrast, the demographic growth rate of Palestinians fluctuated considerably during this period, a result of wars and further civilian displacements.

At the end of the century, the Palestinian population living in the State of Palestine reached slightly more than 3 million, with at least an additional half million Palestinians living in refugee camps in neighboring countries and more than two million residing outside camps.

The population of Israel in 2014 is approximately 8.2 million, about the same size as New York City, with 75 percent of the population being Jewish Israelis. The Israeli population is growing at about 1.8 percent a year. Although relatively low in comparison to the rates of the 1990s, Israel’s current demographic growth is double the rate of the United States and many times greater than Europe’s. The median age of the Israeli population is 30 years old, which is about 15 years younger than the average ages in Germany, Italy and Japan. Israel’s fertility rate is about 3 children for every woman, again well above the average for most developed countries.

This comparatively high birth rate, however, has not deterred women from pursuing higher education. In fact, women account for the majority, 56 percent, of college students in Israel.

Immigration contributed greatly to the rapid growth of Israel’s Jewish population, but today it is estimated that more than half — about 58 percent — of the world’s Jewish population lives outside Israel, mainly in the US, at about 40 percent, followed by France, Canada and Britain, each under 4 percent. As large-scale Jewish emigration from these developed countries to Israel is considered unlikely, most of Israel’s current and future demographic growth will be the result of natural increase.

The population of Palestinians in the State of Palestine in 2014 is about  4.4 million, with 1.7 million in the Gaza Strip and 2.7 million in the West Bank. According to the UN Relief and Works Agency, which is responsible for the care of Palestinian refugees, more than 1.5 million Palestinian refugees are living in camps in countries in the region. The number of Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries but living outside refugee camps is estimated at approximately 4 million.

The Palestinian population living in the State of Palestine is growing comparatively fast, 2.4 percent a year, or 33 percent higher than Israel’s current rate of population growth. The population is also young, with half 18 years old or under, making it the youngest population in the region. Although Palestinian fertility has declined substantially from a record high of about 8 children per woman in the 1960s, it remains comparatively high at more than 4 children for every woman.

As noted in the case of Israel, even with high birth rates Palestinian women actively pursue higher education, constituting the majority, 56 percent, of college students.

Population projections for the next 20 years indicate continued demographic growth for both Israel and the State of Palestine. The Palestinian population is expected to grow more rapidly than the Israeli population because of higher fertility rates. Whereas the Israeli population is expected to increase by about 40 percent by 2035, the Palestinian population is projected to increase by nearly 60 percent (Table 1).

Population projections also show that while the Jewish proportion in Israel will decline slightly over the next two decades, it will continue to be the dominant majority of the Israeli population, 73 percent in 2035. This is not the case, however, when one considers the entire future population residing in the former British Palestine. Demographic projections indicate that less than half of the future population residing there would be Jewish, 48 percent in 2025 and 46 percent by 2035. But if only the West Bank population were to be incorporated into Israel, the Jewish proportion would be a declining majority, 57 percent in 2014 to 53 percent by 2035.

Given the many contentious issues, powerful interests and past failed attempts, a successful outcome of the current Israeli and Palestinian negotiations is at best uncertain. Yet, at least one issue remains clear: Whatever future comprehensive peace agreement eventually arises, be it a one-state, two-state or three-state solution with agreed upon territorial and population swaps or something else, the population growth of the major religious groups residing in this troubled land will continue to have significant consequences that will reverberate well beyond its boundaries, just as it has in the recent past.

This piece first appeared at Pass Blue, a CUNY site covering the UN, with the headline
“Israeli-Palestinian Population Growth and Its Impact on Peace.”

Joseph Chamie

Joseph Chamie is currently an independent consulting demographer. At the close of 2011 he stepped down as research director at the Center for Migration Studies, New York and editor of the International Migration Review. Formerly, he was the director of the United Nations Population Division. He had been with the United Nations in the field of population and development both overseas and in New York for more than a quarter century. Among other major duties, he was the deputy secretary-general for the 1994 United Nations International Conference for Population and Development. In addition to completing numerous population reports issued under United Nations authorship, he has also published studies and articles in his own name in such areas as fertility, population estimates and projections, international migration and population and development policy. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a trustee of the Migration Policy Institute.

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28 Responses

  1. ckg on February 21, 2014, 11:11 am

    A question for the author: Do you think there will be negligible population impact in Israel of a potential offer from Spain to allow Sephardic Jews to return?

  2. Andrew Keith on February 21, 2014, 11:18 am

    I believe that there are about 1 million Israeli Jews living outside of Israel. That means that, today, there are more Palestinians actually living between the river and the sea than Jews.

    • The JillyBeans on February 21, 2014, 8:19 pm

      I actually have noticed more Israeli Jews moving to the area where I live. Which is an older Jewish suburbia section of town. I wonder if there aren’t already more leaving than coming to Israel.

    • Mayhem on February 22, 2014, 10:04 pm

      I believe that there are about 1 million Israeli Jews living outside of Israel.

      @keith, one can only wonder at how many other things you believe in that are false.
      A 2012 report by the Knesset research center revealed there are somewhere between 230,000 and 750,000 Israeli citizens abroad. Read
      Good summary there:
      “There are countless reasons for Israelis and Palestinians to seek peace, but a false demographic panic should not be one of them. Israel still has many years and policy tools to prevent the disappearance of a Jewish majority in the areas under Israeli sovereignty. The vices involved with ruling another people are many, and the benefits peace would bring are innumerable — but the motivation to resolve the conflict should not stem from the threat of ticking demographic time bombs.”

    • Naftush on February 23, 2014, 3:22 am

      “1 million Israeli Jews living outside of Israel” is a scarecrow statistic that’s favored by the far Left (who gloat that Israel is emptying out) and the far Right (who rage against the non-religious Israeli population for abandoning the country). To reach such a number, one has to count students, employees in training, and (get this) an estimate of children born in the Diaspora to Israelis who really left. That would make my four Israel-born children expatriate Americans, wouldn’t it. The real number of expatriate Israelis is around 200,000. Now for Palestinians: PA statistics double-count residents of Jerusalem, falsely assume a positive migration balance, and apparently fail to count deaths.

      • wilywascal on October 7, 2014, 4:52 pm

        You appear to be using claims about Palestinian demographics derived from the American-Israel Demographic Research Group. The group’s claims are not corroborated by demographic experts in Israel and around the world, but Israeli right-wing activists and politicians have adopted them.

        In 2007, Soffer co-wrote an article called “The Tricky Million-Person Gap.” According to the piece, all 21 assumptions of the American-Israeli group are flawed.

        “Take for example the issue of mortality,” Soffer told Haaretz. “The Jewish population has the normal number of elderly compared to the rest of the world. The Arab population does not have as many elderly people and so the mortality rate is lower.” Among Israeli Jews, six people die annually out of every 1,000, compared with 2.5 in the Arab community, Soffer says.

        “If this were an academic debate, it wouldn’t be worth my while to deal with [the group],” Soffer said. “But suddenly Bogie [Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon] tells me we don’t have a demographic problem.”

        According to Dr. Assaf Sharon, academic director at Molad, a left-wing think tank, “The debate over the future of the territories is important enough to hold based on real facts and data. The so-called facts in the ideological right wing’s strategy are baseless. Rightists forget that a lie repeatedly told does not become the truth. The annexation of the territories means a binational state. You can be for or against it, but you can’t deny it.”

  3. HarryLaw on February 21, 2014, 11:36 am

    In a letter sent to Netanyahu several Israeli MK’s , Yariv Levine said. “It is our right and historic duty to settle and build in all parts of the land of Israel and we will stand determinedly on this right.”
    “You don’t freeze a people that returned to its country and is building its home there,” MK Motti Yogev (Bayit Yehudi) said.
    “Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Rive there will only be one Jewish and democratic state – the State of Israel,” Yogev added. “The two-state solution is not practicable and is dangerous to the continued existence of the State of Israel.”
    According to these MK’s one state between the Jordan and the sea can only mean one of two things, expulsion of the Palestinians or Palestinians with no vote, they should be asked, which is it?

    • W.Jones on February 21, 2014, 12:01 pm

      I am sorry to say that the answer is actually expulsion, Harry. The rightists talk about how Jordan is the Palestinian state. And as you know the rightists are growing. They do favor expulsion explicitly in polls (a rightwing minority of Israelis), and given the reality of a people without votes or citizenship living in the one state, expulsion is what they prefer.

      It’s a minority of Israelis and the opportunity for such an expulsion has not presented itself, although the Nakba and Naksas were precedents. It is not something most Israelis want or would admit. It’s just a “reality”, like the settlements themselves. In this case, the demographic problem is the “reality”. The fact that it is not a policy or stated does not negate this, just like the Nakba itself, or going past the 1947 UN borders were not things that were officially announced beforehand either, Harry.

    • Walid on February 21, 2014, 12:56 pm

      Looking like Levine found a solution to his demographic problem by partially assimilating Palestinian Christians in declaring them as non-Arabs. But in 2035, these would have constituted only 2% of the total population; what would he do to bring in another 3% to be over the 50% mark, take in a few Palestinian Muslims?

  4. pabelmont on February 21, 2014, 12:14 pm

    And these statistics do not count all the Palestinians presently exiled from Mandatory Palestine, nor the Jewish Israelis who’d like to leave if they could. (Well, I suppose there are also Jews not in Israel who’d like to go there to live — but if so, why don’t they do it?)

    These projections were made without any comment on the availability of water. Or climate change which may have other effects than merely drying things out. Gaza’s set to run entirely out of potable water in a year or two, the aquifer having been contaminated with sea water as its level was inexorably drawn down — by overpopulation in Gaza and also by use in Israel, I don’t know which cause is the greater, but the overpopulation is certainly a consequence of Israeli action in 1948-51.

  5. justicewillprevail on February 21, 2014, 1:12 pm

    So a minority will rule over a majority, the differences between them defined by labyrinthine laws and arbitrary rules dividing citizens into arcane and artificial categories. The minority will enjoy greater privileges, rights and economic benefits over the majority who will suffer varying degrees of restriction upon their movements, economic prospects and access to land, housing and water resources. A gerrymandered political process will ensure that the minority will always stay in power, with only a small proportion of the majority allowed to vote. How is that different from South African apartheid, and in many ways is worse in its callous indifference, and deliberate sadistic and punitive intent, of the indigenous citizens?

    What’s that? A retrospectively engineered, heavily mythologised and speculative account of history guarantees you the right to do this? You really think so – or do you have no other excuses for the plainly inexcusable?

  6. Helena Cobban on February 21, 2014, 7:10 pm

    This ‘counting’ of Jews-vs-Palestinians who live in the area of Mandate Palestine is at one level a complete diversion and at another directly misleading. The government of Israel has controlled this whole territory for nearly 44 years, including crucially it has controlled who can enter or reside in not just 1948 Israel but also the OPTs. It has used this power to actively exclude not just all Palestinians who were outside this area as of June 5, 1967 but also HUGE numbers of Palestinians who were in it as of 1967 but later left “temporarily” for job or educational opportunities elsewhere– primarily in the Gulf– that were completely DENIED to them inside the OPTs. Tight Israeli regs have excluded HUGE numbers of Palestinians who were resident there before 1967 (and their descendants), along with all the Palestinian refugees from e.g. East Bank Jordan who prior to 1967 could at least visit or perhaps even move to some spot in historic Palestine…. Bottom line, this obsessive ‘counting’ of the ethnicity of the people west of the Jordan River completely ignores not only the rights/existence of the large majority of Palestinians currently forced to live outside their homeland but also the fact that the “administrative” ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the OPTs continues to this day. These facts need to be highlighted whenever anyone gets into the “counting the people west of the river” game…

  7. Talkback on February 22, 2014, 8:06 am

    The numbers of 2014 don’t make sense. Does the population of Israel include Israeli settlers in the State of Palestine? If that’s the case Jews are less then 49% in what is called “British Palestine” (which is a misnomer, because Palestine was never British).

    8.21 (Israelis) *0.75 (Jews) / 12.65 (everybody) = 0.487 (48,7% Jews), no?

    • asherpat on February 22, 2014, 8:25 pm

      @Talkback – “Palestine was never British”. Well said. So whose has it ever been?

      We can go back in history for approximately 3000 years and one thing Palestine never was – “Palestinian”.

      • RoHa on February 23, 2014, 12:02 am

        ‘We can go back in history for approximately 3000 years and one thing Palestine never was – “Palestinian”.’

        So even three thousand years ago the native people had no rights in Palestine?

      • Talkback on February 23, 2014, 5:01 am

        asherpat: Well said. So whose has it ever been?

        The souvereign has changed a lot of times. But since mandate times it belonged to the citizens of Palestine. And at least since 1945 no belligerent takeover can change an entitlement. I’m sure we both agree on that, ashi. :)

        We can go back in history for approximately 3000 years and one thing Palestine never was – “Palestinian”.

        It was between 1919 and the belligerent takeover. Of course not in the only-Arab sense. But even today the definition of the “Palestinian” nation is not only-Arab. They are not racist, you know, like those who talk about Israel as a Jewish nation. You certainly wouldn’t do that too ashi, would you? :)

      • asherpat on February 24, 2014, 3:48 am

        @Talkback – “since mandate times it belonged to the citizens of Palestine”. Since you mention, the “mandate” – actually, the “Mandate” mandated that the land is used for Jewish homeland. San Remo, all subsequent decisions and facts on the ground were to make the “Mandate” land for Jewish people. In fact, the existence of “Palestinian” people as a nation is, as any reasonable observer agree, highly debatable BEFORE 1960s, the evidence is scant (I mean the evidence that Arabs residing in the Mandate viewed themselves as a separate nation) and in many places there are documented quotations that they saw themselves as a part of Syria (for example (a late one)

        And finally, EVEN if one agrees to follow your desperate logic that Jews and Arabs in the Mandate were indeed some concoction-nation called “Palestinians” (so Jews in Israel are also “Palestinians” now?, only descendents of those who were here in 1919? 1850?) – you still don’t disprove my original claim that “one thing Palestine never was – “Palestinian”. – because it was under the Mandate, so neither Jewish nor Arab and not “Palestinian”. I am waiting for your logical disproval, devoid of straw-man arguments please.

      • Sumud on February 23, 2014, 7:35 am

        Tedious asherpat.

        In the final analysis it is academic.

        All of the following Israeli behaviour will continue to be illegal and immoral, and will continue to outrage decent people around the world:
        – acquisition of territory by war
        – ethnic cleansing
        – apartheid
        – transfer of population into occupied territory
        – stealing natural and other resources from occupied territory.

        And nothing is ever going to transform a bible into a property deed.

      • asherpat on February 24, 2014, 5:39 am

        @Sumud, allow me to Fisk your comment:

        “Tedious asherpat…In the final analysis it is academic.” – For you it is “academic” – for me, it is life and death of my loved ones, even if you don’t agree with my right to this land.
        “All of the following Israeli behaviour will continue to be illegal and immoral, and will continue to outrage decent people around the world:
        – acquisition of territory by war [AP: this is by no means automatically “illegal” nor it is “immoral” – for example, the acquisition of territory by Israel isn’t in itself illegal – you can’t argue this, you may argue that holding it is illegal, but this is another issue]
        – ethnic cleansing [AP: how can you make this claim in straight face, LOL! How can you claim “ethnic cleansing” when the article itself claims that the Arab population is rising?!!? This must be the most inept and incompetent “ethnic cleansing” ever!]
        – apartheid [AP: this smear is wearing tired, you all know it – and it even isn’t logically supported – apartheid is about race, since Arabs are of the same race as Jews, the definition doesn’t hold. You may claim discrimination on basis of citizenship (justified due to real security concerns) but not apartheid – but you chose propaganda attempts over serious debate.]
        – transfer of population into occupied territory [AP: this is a non-sequitur, because you are trying to insinuate Geneva convention but the territories are not occupied from a qualifying side, and so, don’t fall under this definition.]
        – stealing natural and other resources from occupied territory. [AP: DITTO, and you conveniently forget that whatever water Israel takes is in accordance with an agreement with the P.A.

        “And nothing is ever going to transform a bible into a property deed.” [AP: There is no need for that, the UN (or the League of Nations) have reconfirmed the ownership of Jewish nation over the biblical land of Israel.]

        Happy unfisking!

  8. jdledell on February 23, 2014, 12:34 pm

    What all of you are forgetting is a plan that I have heard discussed at shul by Israeli politicians. The plan is to offer Israeli citizenship to Jews around the world. They would be vetted by personnel assigned by the Israeli government and you can guess which Jews would be offered citizenship – leftists and two staters need not apply. I’ve heard politicians say that they believe such an effort would add 5 to 6 million Jews to Israeli voting rolls, enough to offset any Palestinian demographic challenge.

  9. adinas on November 16, 2014, 3:07 pm

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