The Strange Case of Palestinian Population Statistics

(Photo: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay)

How many Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza? The strange truth is that nobody knows. But there is good reason to believe that journalists and experts routinely present Palestinian population figures that are wildly exaggerated.

The latest trend is to assert that the number of Jews and Arabs living west of the Jordan River is roughly equal. This is based on the widely circulated claim that the West Bank is home to 3 million Palestinians, and that another 2 million live in Gaza. But what are these numbers based on?

An IDF officer cited the figures in a Knesset briefing last year. However, he made clear that the numbers came from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Soon after, the media went into a frenzy.

Dramatic headlines screamed that the number of Jews and Arabs between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea was now equal, at best. Officials, mostly from the left, were quoted en masse predicting demographic doomsday scenarios.

Any doubts about the accuracy of the numbers were briefly mentioned, if noted at all. One website wrote that the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics was “fairly reliable.” Some news stories attributed the figures to the IDF and buried the original source of the data.  

IDF: Palestinian Numbers Off

There was just one problem: The IDF officer who presented the numbers clearly stated that they were inaccurate. Somehow, most media outlets did not report this.

The officer told Knesset members that the actual Palestinian population in the West Bank was only 2.5 to 2.7 million, the Ynet news website reported. Palestinian authorities were doing a poor job of keeping track of mortality and emigration figures, he said.

A Palestinian who was born in Brazil and lived there his entire life can still be counted in the Palestinian census, the officer noted.

Amazingly, forecasts presented at the Knesset less than two months later predicted population parity only in 2065. These figures, predictably, were not translated into widely circulated news stories. Moreover, even these more conservative estimates have been questioned.

Numerous Statistical Flaws

The most vocal skeptic may be former Israeli diplomat Yoram Ettinger. He and his research team have worked tirelessly for years to dispel Palestinian claims. The evidence presented by Ettinger seems compelling, and at least some of it has been corroborated by leading demographers

According to Ettinger’s research, there are numerous flaws in determining Palestinian population figures. The partial list includes counting the more than 300,000 Arabs residing in Jerusalem twice — both as Palestinians and as residents of Israel. The same issue pertains to Palestinians who married Israeli Arabs and now live in Israel.

Similarly to the IDF, Ettinger pointed to under-reported Palestinian emigration and deaths. He also cited World Bank data suggesting that Palestinian birth statistics were inflated. Moreover, the former diplomat stresses that Palestinian birthrates have declines significantly over time, while Jewish fertility is on the rise.

Ettinger has concluded in an article for the Israel Hayom daily that “claims about a ‘demographic time bomb’ are either a drastic mistake or a scandalous deception.”

The Lebanon Case

A further hint to the problematic nature of Palestinian population statistics can be found in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s official 2017 census revealed that the country was home to some 175,000 Palestinians. This was well below the official UN estimate, which put the figure at closer to 500,000.

Even more conservative assessments, such as the one produced by the American University in Beirut, significantly overestimated Lebanon’s Palestinian population.

Some observers believe that population figures in the West Bank and in Gaza are similarly skewed. According to the most conservative estimates, the number of residents may be inflated by as many as a million in both the West Bank and in Gaza, where emigration has also increased.

As noted at the top of this article, the actual number of Palestinians in the areas in question is unknown. But regardless of the exact figure, much of the debate on the issue appears to rely on faulty and manipulated data. Unfortunately, in the current era of fake news, this is unlikely to change.