By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
Among the 2022 projections, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) expects that the numbers of Palestinians and Jews in historic Palestine will be equal at the end of 2022, where each will be approximately 7.1 million. In four years (2026), Palestinians are expected to exceed the Jews by about 300 thousand.
From a Palestinian point of view, the positive interpretation of these projections, confirm that the Palestinian people, despite suffering oppression, displacement and occupation, are still steadfast in their land. Moreover, it shows that after the establishment of the World Zionist Organization by 125 years, and after the establishment of Israel by 74 years, this Zionist project is facing the fact that the Palestinian population inside Palestine exceeds the number of Jews there, whom were gathered throughout those years from more than a hundred countries. This is undoubtedly a disturbing fact for Israel.
However, talking about the Palestinian “demographic bomb” should not make Palestinians swept up in the euphoria of victory or make them feel relaxed. For Palestinian steadfastness and population growth are important phenomena, but they are not enough. This growth is an essential component for steadfastness and liberation, however, it alone is not a decisive factor. History has shown that, in many cases, colonialism was able to deal with and overcome such phenomena. Therefore, the quality of people remains much more important than the mere increase of “birth” rate.
Second, the Israelis are aware of the risk this phenomenon poses, they have been working on it for decades. Hence, their disengagement from Gaza Strip (GS) in 2005, where 2.14 million Palestinians lived at the beginning of 2022 (30.7% of Palestinians inside Palestine). Their plan in the West Bank (WB) was to shift to the concept of “creeping annexation” and “creeping separation,” where the largest area of land that has the smallest number of inhabitants would be annexed, keeping the Palestinians in “ghettos” or “cantons” that have the form of a distorted self-rule and nominally bear the title of a state. This is what actually has been happening, after the collapse of the peace process and the two-state solution.
Third, Israel has made the living environment for the Palestinians unbearable, whether by imposing a strangling siege on GS, or by proceeding with Judaization, settlement building, economic exploitation, and the pursuit of freedom fighters in WB. Some statistics indicate that about 415 thousand Palestinians left WB and GS during 1967–2003, in addition to tens of thousands of people from each WB and GS in the past years, for which accurate statistics are not available. For example, a report prepared by Tayseer Khalid and issued by the PLO’s Department of Expatriate Affairs has indicated that in 2006 about 50 thousand Palestinians in WB and GS applied to foreign consulates, especially the US, Canadian, Australian and Scandinavian ones, in order to immigrate, where 10 thousand applications were accepted. This is a case of continuous and possibly increasing depletion that needs to be monitored, at least to know the exact size of the phenomenon, the real number of Palestinians under occupation, and how to support their steadfastness.
Fourth, it is noted that the fertility rate of Palestinian women inside Palestine has decreased, although it remains in the short and medium term higher than that of Jewish women. According to PCBS, the total fertility rate in the WB and GS has decreased; 6 births per woman in 1997 and decreasing to 3.8 births in 2020. It decreased from 5.6 to 3.8 in WB, and from 6.9 to 3.9 in GS during the same period (1997–2020). As for the population growth in WB and GS, it decreased from 3.8% in 1997 to 2.4% in 2021. It decreased from 3.6% to 2.2% in WB, and from 4.1% to 2.8% in GS during the same period (1997–2020). This phenomenon that should also make the Palestinians worry.
Even in the 1948 occupied territories (Israel), the fertility rate of Palestinian women decreased to 3 births per woman in 2018, which is almost equal to the fertility rate of Jewish women there. It should be noted that the fertility rate of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women is 7 births per woman. The population growth of the Palestinians of the 1948 occupied territories decreased from 3.4% in 1998 to 2% in 2021.
Fifth, the displacement and “transfer” files are still on the Israeli decision-maker’s desk, whose society is developing to become more extreme, more religious and nationalistic.
Although the Israeli population growth rate was in 2021, around 1.57%, i.e., less than its Palestinian counterpart, however, the fact that the number of Palestinians would exceed the number of Jews in historical Palestine must be placed within an objective context, and must be viewed within a framework of many challenges and dangers facing the Palestinian people inside Palestine.
The second Palestinian demographic indicator that is worthy to mention is that the PCBS estimates of the number of Palestinians in the world at the end of 2021 (early 2022) are about 14 million; about more than half 7.037 million (50.2%) live in the diaspora. As for the Palestinians in the Arab world, they are estimated at 6.287 million, while 749 thousand Palestinians live in the rest of the world.
Noteworthy to say that more than 75% of Palestinians abroad reside in the countries surrounding historic Palestine, which indicates that Palestinians are still attached and close to their land, and that their return is a practical and feasible matter. This attachment is also evident among the Palestinians in the rest of the world, through the right of return organizations and the activities of Palestinian communities, however, these are more susceptible of having their identity “dissolved” in their western host countries.
Some estimates indicate that the Palestinians in Jordan are estimated at 4.39 million, most of them carry the Jordanian nationality, however, they reject any kind of “naturalization” or having an “alternative homeland.”
As for the Palestinians of Syria and Lebanon, they are increasingly migrating. Although the Palestinian refugees in Syria were among the most stable Palestinian communities, the events that erupted since 2011 have had a tremendous impact on them. Out of about 656 thousand, estimated at the end of 2020, about 200 thousand were forced to leave Syria; more than 120 thousand immigrated to Europe, about 25 thousand are still in Lebanon, and about ten thousand to Turkey. At the same time, about 40% of those who remained in Syria suffered internal displacement (more than 180 thousand) after their refugee camps were destroyed, particularly Yarmouk, Dera‘a, Handarat and Khan al-Sheih. They live in deplorable conditions of unemployment, poverty and instability, threatening their communities of more migration.
In Lebanon, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has indicated that at the end of 2020 there were 543 thousand registered Palestinian refugees, however, according to an official Lebanese census (in collaboration with PCBS) of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, in 2017, they numbered around 174 thousand. Even if we assume that there is a higher margin of error in this census; the estimates that most researchers agree on are 200–250 thousand, with a high percentage of the rest is willing to immigrate if given the opportunity. This means that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been suffering from a high rate of migration, which has increased in recent years with the continued work restrictions on the Palestinians, and emergence of the political and economic crises in Lebanon.
The Palestinians in the Arab countries have received severe blows, especially in the past thirty years, as happened in Kuwait, Libya and Iraq, while the suffering is ongoing in Syria and Lebanon. These conditions must be taken seriously by the Palestinian decision-makers, and by everyone concerned with the future of the Palestine issue.
The third and final indicator is related to the PCBS estimates of Palestinians in non-Arab countries (Europe, the Americas, Australia and others), indicating that their number is about 749 thousand, which seem to be outdated and inaccurate estimates. For in addition to the Palestinians who left the Arab countries in the past three decades (From the countries surrounding Palestine and the countries of the Gulf and Libya), and from Palestine itself to other countries worldwide, previous estimates about the Palestinians worldwide have many discrepancies, thus more scrutiny, comparison and review is needed.
For example, some estimates indicate that the number of Palestinians in South American is more than 600 thousand, of whom at least 300 thousand are in Chile; the Palestinians in Europe are no less than 350–400 thousand, in North America no less than 300–350 thousand and in the rest of the world no less than 100 thousand. According to these estimates, the number of Palestinians in non-Arab countries is more than one million. Perhaps researchers and specialists have a daunting, but necessary, task to reach more accurate estimates of the Palestinians worldwide.