There are two ways of looking at the demographic dimension of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians: as a dispute between two peoples with violently conflicting national narratives concerning their right to the land and the nature of their societies; and as a classic north-south encounter.
For Israeli Jews, following the collapse of the peace process and more than three years of violence, the first dimension centers around the perceived threat posed to Israel as a Jewish homeland by Palestinian population growth and migration. If Jews are not an overwhelming majority in Israel, the country will not remain a Jewish and a democratic state--perhaps the only definition of Israel that all Zionists can agree on. This is the key factor pushing right wing Israelis today to embrace some sort of formula for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. It is also a cause for concern with regard to the Palestinian Arab sector in Israel, some 18 percent of the population, which is expected to grow disproportionately in the coming decades.
The north-south dimension is ostensibly more manageable and less political. Like virtually all advanced economies, Israel has reached a degree of development whereby it requires cheap outside labor to do jobs that Israelis don't want to do. Prior to the first intifada (1988-92) this demand was filled by Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. Since then Israel has imported foreign workers from as far afield as China, with Palestinian workers allowed into Israel only in small numbers and when the security situation permits, and larger numbers entering illegally.
But these arrangements have generated two demographic problems that, in turn, nourish the first, territorial, dimension. One is Palestinian workers who remain in the country illegally, and whose presence is perceived by Israelis as a form of illicit "return" that derives from the territorial dispute. A second is non-Palestinian foreign workers who remain here illegally and begin to raise families whose presence also affects the Jewish nature of the state.
Notably, as long as the peace process with the Palestinians appeared to promise a reasonable political solution and the security situation was under control, Israeli governments did very little to counter these demographic problems and threats. Everyone assumed, however unrealistically, that the advent of a Palestinian state would afford the best opportunity to rationalize all the demographic problems--as if Palestinians would not continue to enter and live in Israel illegally and the high annual population growth rate of the Negev Bedouin would somehow decline.
It was the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of violence more than three years ago that made Israelis aware of long term Palestinian intentions to exploit the refugee/right of return issue, illegal return, and the role of the Israeli Arab community in order to undermine Israel demographically. And it was the security crisis posed by the near-existential threat of Palestinian suicide bombings that led Israel, however reluctantly, to adopt a policy of physical separation--the fence--that appears to offer a means of at least mitigating the demographic threat as well.
Today a large majority of Israeli Jews, left and right, seeks to use physical barriers to keep Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from entering Israel. This may solve some of the demographic problems, but it is liable to create new political ones. On the one hand we can now contemplate orderly procedures, using advanced technology, for enabling Palestinian day laborers to enter Israel in the morning and leave at night, thereby to a large extent neutralizing the demographic aspect of Israel's north/south problem and enabling it to cease dependency on foreign workers who end up staying here.
On the other hand those Israelis, led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who think they can achieve a viable demographic and political solution by fencing in a bantustan in 50 percent of the West Bank are only exacerbating both problems. And since a realistic two state solution appears to be impossible to negotiate with the current Palestinian leadership, Israel must be very careful in carrying out unilateral fence-building and withdrawal schemes. The fence must be on or near the green line in order to reinforce the only conceivable permanent border; the withdrawal must provide benefits for both Israel (security, demography) and Palestine (land) without foreclosing any political options or creating any new and problematic political or geographic facts, e.g., by annexing or settling additional lands in the West Bank.
As for Israel's own burgeoning Arab population, a green line fence, or peace, would give us a chance to address the pressing challenges of economic and social integration and elimination of the insane financial incentives for child-bearing that the state has been providing. At the end of the day, less than 12 percent of the Israeli population are Muslims, and only a portion of them cultivate a religious and political outlook that threatens Israel from within. This is a containable threat.
Finally there is the issue of the very high population growth rate of Palestinians in the West Bank and especially Gaza (over five percent annually). Currently, for obvious reasons, making babies is considered a patriotic duty for Palestinians. Palestinian economic planners hesitate to point out that even under the best of political circumstances economic growth will be impossible under such demographic conditions. But eventually, in order to have a viable state, Palestinians will have to come to terms with their own internal demographic threat. The most Israelis can hope for is to make this largely a Palestinian problem rather than an Israeli problem.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
Even before the Palestinian-Israeli conflict took on its full dimensions, the rhetoric of demography was used to sell the idea of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Jewish leaders suggested in the early twentieth century that this region would be a suitable "land without people for a people without a land." The activation and acceleration of Jewish immigration in the first half of that century was, among other things, a tool to manipulate local demography. Too, the activities of armed Jewish organizations, some of them deemed terrorist groups by the British mandate authorities, were certainly aimed at pushing the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine out of the land into a stateless diaspora, thus helping Jews to win the population race.
More recently, the demographic component of the conflict has taken on increased urgency, for Israel in particular. In spite of all efforts to manufacture an Israeli citizenry that is as "purely" Jewish as possible, there remain some one million Palestinians in Israel's borders. Also, because the occupation of the rest of historic Palestine, i.e. the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, persists and has been consolidated by the construction of settlements within these occupied areas, the green line has nearly disappeared. Israel now finds itself in a situation where experts are warning of a demographic majority of Palestinians "from the river to the sea." That has many Israelis worried, and creates a dilemma for Israel's right-wing leadership which on one hand wants a Jewish state for ideological reasons, but on the other hand wants to maintain Israeli control over as much as possible of the Palestinian occupied territories for historic and religious reasons. That dilemma has been picked up on, not only by Palestinians, but also by the United States administration, which has begun to warn Israel against consolidating and maintaining the occupation.
Israel would do itself a favor if it would stop trying to have its cake and eat it too. The pursuit of two contradictory policies is harming the Palestinians, who are being deprived of their natural right to independence and statehood. It is also, however, proving detrimental to Israel.
"Population imbalance" is only a problem in the context of crises and war. That is why the only way out for both Palestinians and Israelis is to adhere to international legality which means an end to the occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the removal of the illegal Jewish settlements there in order to open the way for the establishment of a separate and independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Time is in the Palestinians' favor
an interview with Arnon Soffer
bitterlemons: What is your demographic forecast for the year 2020?
Soffer: First we have to clarify what we are discussing. The population figures are confusing. We have "Palestine" from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, we have official Israel, and we have unofficial Israel including additional foreign workers and Palestinian illegals who crossed the green line in the last 35 years in large numbers. Moreover in Jerusalem the Arabs are citizens not of Israel but of Jerusalem.
If we talk about the area from the river to the sea, at this moment Jews are a minority vis-à-vis non-Jews, because we count about 300,000 foreign workers. Jews are about 48-49 percent, and will decrease to about 39 percent in another 16 years.
If we withdraw to the green line or to a unilateral separation line, we are now 77 percent Jews in Israel, and in another 16 years will be 71 percent--the rest being Arab citizens of Israel--or 64 percent if we include non-citizens, i.e., foreign workers and Palestinian non-citizens.
bitterlemons: Israel has an active program of deporting illegal foreign workers.
Soffer: In no western country have they managed to solve the problem of foreign workers; they'll live with us forever. It's the same all over the globe.
bitterlemons: What is the scope of illegal Palestinian migration into Israel since 1967? Will the fence reverse the trend?
Soffer: Based on official statistics and my own surveys, I calculate that more or less 300,000 Arabs have managed to "return" since 1948. Prior to 1967, some 40,000 came illegally and legally; since then entry has been by migration, lawful and unlawful, fictitious marriages, and displaced West Bank Palestinians from 1967 who come as tourists and half of whom stay here. Not all come because of "return". Between Mexico and the US, the GNP gap is one to four, while between Israel and the West Bank it's one to 17.
bitterlemons: So you're describing a north-south phenomenon? The Israeli economy needs the workers?
Soffer: Indeed, much of this has nothing to do with the conflict, but rather with the economic gap. In our case it has been very easy to cross the border. The fence will stop this so we can regulate this phenomenon and separate it from "return". Note that 14,000 [West Bank] Palestinians used to work in Umm al Fahm [an Arab town on the Israeli side of the green line, now separated by the fence]; now only 3,000 remain.
bitterlemons: Looking at Israel's internal demographic problem, what are the ramifications of Palestinian (Israeli Arab) population growth inside Israel, especially in the Galilee and the northern Negev?
Soffer: The mountainous Galilee area assigned to the Palestinian state in the 1947 partition plan still has around 65 percent Arabs and 35 percent Jews despite all the incentives [for Jews to settle there]. Jewish youth are leaving Misgav and the Galilee for the Tel Aviv area. From Biranit at the Lebanese border along the mountain spine through the Galilee and the Afula area there is a link to Jenin and from there via the West Bank to Jerusalem (an Arab city, depending how you define the boundaries) down to Hebron and the Israeli Bedouin in the northern Negev, with a potential to link up with Gaza, though there is still Jewish territory in between. The problem with the Bedouin is a rate of five percent annual natural increase, thereby doubling the population every ten years--the highest rate in the world.
bitterlemons: How do you propose for Israel to counter this?
Soffer: At the geographic level, I would create a new wedge of Jewish settlement in the Jezreel Valley/Taanachim/Afula area, and again between Gaza and the Israeli Bedouin in the Ashkelon/Sderot area, and along the green line "seam line", the "stars" settlements west of the green line.
At the national level, we must begin by Judaizing all the non-Jewish Russian immigrants, who now number 231,000. We can further reduce the potential hostile internal population by co-opting the Druze and the Christian Arabs. Turning to Jerusalem, why do we need east Jerusalem? We should separate east Jerusalem from the rest and annex the holy basin unilaterally. This would leave another 250,000 Arabs on the other side of the fence. Then [only] 1.5 million Muslims would remain under Israeli control in 2020.
bitterlemons: And between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, what is your demographic solution?
Soffer: I'm ready to wait for a negotiated peace, but if I put myself in [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat's head or that of any proud Palestinian, they are asking: "what will the Jews leave us if they withdraw to the green line? A prison called Gaza, one called Hebron, and another called Nablus or Samaria. They [the Jews] won't accept the right of return and will retain a mighty army. We Palestinians will have corridors to Gaza within Jewish territory. This is unacceptable. We have to just wait another ten years and we'll have a majority in all of Palestine and an apartheid situation where the world will support us. Israelis will leave. Time is in our favor."
Thus I don't think we have a partner for real negotiations, and we need to take our own steps, to return to the green line, plus the settlement blocs, minus Umm al-Fahm. The green line is not an international line, it's a ceasefire line, and to avoid a Jewish civil war we need the settlement blocs.
bitterlemons: Shouldn't both Israel and the Palestinians be reducing their rates of population growth?
Soffer: Yes. Just the effects of sewage and the ecological impact of another three million people in Eretz Israel are a disaster that will put us in the third world. We, both of us, are committing suicide, yet the Palestinians are encouraging natural increase and so are we. For our part we should not have restrictions on immigration, but we should encourage the Singapore law, under which parents who have more than two children have to pay all their educational and other expenses. It's moral for President Mubarak of Egypt and Hashemi Rafsanjani of Iran to talk birth control, but not us?
Arnon Soffer is professor of geography and heads the Chair in Geostrategic Studies at the University of Haifa.
bitterlemons: What do you make of the recent flurry of Israeli reports and predictions concerning Palestinian and Israeli population growth?
Abu Libdeh: I think this is purely a reflection of their nightmare concerning their own concept of the Jewishness of the state. They don't want to recognize that the only way to preserve the Jewishness of the state, if one looks at the way Israel was created, is to conduct a comprehensive, persistent and regular [forced] exodus of the Palestinian people because historic Palestine has one indigenous population and one implanted population. Otherwise, the best way for Israelis to wake up from this nightmare is by creating a Palestinian state next door.
bitterlemons: Which of these recent Israeli demographic assessments is most accurate, in your opinion?
Abu Libdeh: Historic Palestine has two populations, Israeli and Palestinian. As of today, the Palestinian population is not the majority. But in two years time--only two years time--we will be reporting that the two populations are equal, regardless of what the Israelis do. In the year 2006, 50 percent of historic Palestine will be composed of Palestinians, and 50 percent will be composed of Israelis. Every year that follows, the majority will be for the Palestinians. I know that [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon has been making his own plans to bring in one million Jews by the year 2010. Even if this happens (which I doubt), the Palestinians will continue to grow as a majority in historic Palestine.
As for the Palestinians that are now Israeli citizens, their percentage is somewhat stable, but slowly growing. Now they are around 20 percent of the Israeli population. Gradually this will increase because the Palestinian population reproduces much faster.
bitterlemons: This poses a lot of political questions for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but is it also a policy problem for Palestinians?
Abu Libdeh: Indeed. With every additional Palestinian, we will have to produce a lot of resources that we may not have. It is a fact of life that Palestinians are more fertile than Israelis, they grow [as a population] much faster than Israelis and with this, there are pros and cons. In my opinion, we will have to face a special music of our own in feeding all these babies and this is a very serious challenge facing Palestinians from a socio-economic perspective.
But the question here is not one of Palestinians trying to overcome Israel through demography, it is a question of Israel trying to preserve a specific nature using means that will have terrible consequences. Therefore, the problem should not be looked at from the Palestinian perspective.
The question is, what will Israelis do? What kind of a state do they want to have? If they want to have a Jewish state, they have only two options. One is to accelerate their own efforts to help create a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967, which means that Israel will retain a majority of Jewish blood and have to live with the fact of a Palestinian minority. But under the current Israeli political and settlement plan, they are only making it impossible for Israel to be a Jewish state.
bitterlemons: Do you think that the Palestinian birthrate has increased with the intifada and do you have data to support that?
Abu Libdeh: We have historically observed that whenever there is an increased threat facing the Palestinian population, they tend to increase their fertility rate. We witnessed this immediately after the Lebanon war, after the first intifada and we do have a slow increase in the fertility rates nowadays. Of course, this reflects socioeconomic conditions--a high number of unemployed Palestinians, women not finding opportunities in the marketplace--these are the typical parameters for increasing fertility rate in any population. We also have limited outward migration, especially during the last few years (before that we had serious inward migration) and a low infant mortality rate, which also affects the size of the population.
bitterlemons: One of the complaints of some Palestinian citizens of Israel about the Geneva accord was that it granted legitimacy to the concept of Israel as a "Jewish state", which in turn damages their own quest for rights as equal citizens.
Abu Libdeh: I think that this concept is a racist concept. Israel should raise the slogan that it is a state for all its citizens--Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc. If they must have a "Jewish state", then they will have to deal with the immense problem of a growing minority that is basically stripped of its rights. In my opinion, I would rather see next door a state that grants equal rights to its citizens and allows all its citizens to prosper.
bitterlemons: How was Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei's recent statement concerning a one-state solution related to demographic issues?
Abu Libdeh: This was a statement of what the facts may lead to: if the default on the peace process continues, the Palestinians will eventually find themselves struggling to survive within the boundaries of a state that is keeping them in large segregated areas. With the diminishing of the chances for establishing a viable independent sovereign state, Palestinians will have no choice but to claim their rights.
Hasan Abu Libdeh is director of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
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