LONDON- Population figures released by Israeli and Palestinian officials indicate that the number of Arabs living in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is rising and will equal that of Jews within 20 years.
The numbers renewed debate on the nature of the Israeli state: Jewish or democratic, depending on whether Israel keeps control of the Palestinian territories or allows the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Israeli demographics expert Sergio Della-Pergola said the number of Jews in Israel and the Palestinian territories was 6.9 million, compared to 6.5 million Arabs in the same areas.
Jews inside the Palestinian territories are predominately settlers and Arabs in Israel refer to Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin.
The statistics were presented to the Israeli parliament by the government body in charge of Israeli activities in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian officials also released census figures, which indicated that the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem grew 27% from 2007-17.
Ola Awad, president of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, said the total number of Palestinians is 4.78 million; 2.88 million live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and 1.9 million live in Gaza. Awad said the statistics show slightly slower growth than from the 1997-2007 period when growth was 30%.
When factoring in Palestinian citizens of Israel, Awad said she expected the population gap between Jews and Arabs to close as early as 2020, which is sooner than Della-Pergola suggested.
Using different criteria, Awad said the total number of Arabs reached 6.36 million, compared to 6.5 million Jews. Della-Pergola included non-Jewish spouses of Jews in counting the number of Jews.
Neither Israeli nor Palestinian figures include the estimated 5 million Palestinians living in the diaspora.
Israeli settlers disputed Della-Pergola’s population figures and put the number of Palestinians in the West Bank at 1.8 million.
“The slanted publication about Arab demography in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley relies on data from the Palestinian statistics bureau, which are not true or accurate. They (Palestinians) have an interest in inflating the numbers,” settler spokesman Yigal Dilmoni told Reuters.
Della-Pergola dismissed the criticism.
“These are the figures. You can either accept them or not,” Della-Pergola told the Associated Press. “For some, it may be uncomfortable so they say they are inaccurate but truthfully that is quite childish.”
Israel faces limited options in dealing with the Palestinians: continue the military occupation of the Palestinian territories; accept a two-state solution that preserves its Jewish majority by allowing a Palestinian state to be established; annex the West Bank and Jerusalem but apply an apartheid-like system in which citizens don’t have equal rights; or have one state for all where the majority is likely to be non-Jewish.
“This is the challenge for the international community: to put pressure for implementing the two-state solution, putting an end to occupation, or we are going to that direction — apartheid, or an Arab-Palestinian prime minister in the future,” Ahmad Tibi, an Arab legislator in the Israeli parliament told Voice of America.
The figures renewed domestic debate inside Israel.
“While the [Israeli] left warns against the loss of the country’s Jewish majority unless a Palestinian state is established alongside Israel, the right dismisses the demographic threat out of hand, arguing that it is based on fabricated data,” wrote Shlomi Eldar for the website Al-Monitor.
“The argument over the data will likely persist but one thing is clear: The struggle over right-wing aspirations to annex the West Bank has never been more pronounced than it was this week at the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee,” he added.
Not all right-wing politicians were rattled by the figures. Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Eli Ben-Dahan brazenly suggested that it could simply annex the occupied West Bank without giving Palestinians citizenship or the right to vote.
“They want to scare us, that may be soon we will not be a majority and therefore we have to abandon Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). This is a grave mistake,” Ben-Dahan told the pro-settler media outlet Arutz Sheva.
“Even if we apply Israeli law in Judea and Samaria, full civil rights are not just given and certainly not on the first day. We will have to wait several years as is customary in every country.”
Mamoon Alabbasi is Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor of The Arab Weekly. You can follow him on Twitter @MamoonAlabbasi
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.