by Amnon Kartin and Itzhak Schnell
The Israeli government’s new strategic thinking is motivated, among other things, by growing awareness of the demographic problem — that by 2006 the Palestinians will be the majority of the population between the sea and the Jordan River. The Palestinian population will continue to grow by 3 percent a year while the Jewish population will grow at only 2 percent a year and the proportion of the Jewish population will decline by 40 percent by the year 2020. This will mean a death sentence for Israel as a Jewish-Zionist and perhaps democratic state. Arafat’s speech (in July 1987) in which he likened the Palestinian woman to a “biological bomb” only served to exacerbate this feeling. This attributes to Palestinian demography the power to be victorious in the Jewish-Palestinian conflict for control of the land.
This led Professor Arnon Sofer to conclude that Israel should preemptively withdraw from portions of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that are heavily populated, and barricade itself behind walls and fences. This type of separation will protect Israel from existential dangers like losing the majority of the population, terror, being flooded by Palestinian migrant laborers, demands from migrant laborers for resident status based on the right of return and influences upon the Israeli-Arab population. The security forces will also have to develop appropriate defense mechanisms to provide protection from a growing Islamic threat, which will be fueled by the inability of the Palestinians to ensure minimal living standards to a rapidly-growing population.
We believe that this apocalyptic forecast does not necessarily have to come true, and that it harms Israel’s security, even though his conclusion about the necessity of separating between the two peoples is generally correct. We argue that a demographical change is possible, but it is likely to occur only when a strong and orderly Palestinian state is created, one that is capable of economic growth. Improving Palestinian well-being is an Israeli interest that can prevent Sofer’s apocalyptic view from becoming reality. His forecast is what is driving the Israeli security establishment to perform the unilateral separation plans.
Conditions for Demographic Change among the Palestinians
The key question is what are the conditions that will allow for demographic change in the Palestinian society? Studies in demographic changes around the world have shown that a number of factors can influence reduced fertility and a lower rate of natural increase. Among these factors is a rise in standard of living, especially of women, the entrance of women into the workforce, education and especially women’s, religiousness and religion, the status that the culture grants women and the demographic policy of the government (Goujon, 1997). In order to judge the relevance of these factors in Palestinian society, we assumed that this society is expected to behave like other Arab Muslim societies in the area.
A census taken in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip prior to 1967 shows 595,900 people in the West Bank, 389,700 in the Gaza Strip, and 123,000 in East Jerusalem (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development [UNCTAD], 1994). Another estimate is that in 1967 there where 873,000 people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and 442,000 in the Gaza Strip. Since 1969, there has been a consistent decline in the mortality rate in these areas, from 22 per thousand in the West Bank and 20 per thousand in Gaza in 1969, to less then 6 per thousand at the end of the 1990s (Population Reference Bureau [PRB], 1994). During this same period, the birth rate has stayed stable — from 4.0 to 4.5 in the West Bank, and 4.5 to 5.3 in the Gaza Strip (PRB, 1995). During the 1990s, the rate of natural increase in the West Bank was 3.5 percent, and in the Gaza Strip it was 4.6 percent (PRB, 1995). One result is that the percentage of dependent children under the age of 15 is 47 percent of the total population. By comparison, the comparable percentage in the developing countries is 35 percent, which means that there are less than two working-age adults for each child under 15. In the developed world, the percentage is 20 percent, meaning more than three adults for each child under the age of 15. The high percentage of dependent children has important ramifications. The supply of public services is strained, especially the education and health-care systems, and there is an imbalance between providers and dependants in households, which is exacerbated by the fact that most women are absent from the workforce.
In the past three decades, minor changes have occurred in the fertility rate of the population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. According to some of the estimates, in 1968 the fertility rate was 7.0 children per woman (UNCTAD, 1994) and in 1995 it was 7.4 (Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics [PCBS], 1996). In the West Bank, the fertility rate has somewhat declined. In 1968 it was 7.6, and has steadily declined to 5.6 in 1995 (PCBS, 1996). According to research carried out by the PCBS, the most important variable that influences fertility is education. The total fertility rate (TFR) of women with elementary school education in the mid-1990s was 6.62, the TFR of women with high school education 5.57, and the TFR of women with higher education 4.62 (International Institute for Applied System Analysis [IIASA], 1997:17). It was also found that the variable of religion has an important influence on the fertility rate. The average fertility rate of Muslim women in the 1990s was 6.34, with Christian women in the same period averaging 2.71 children. In 1995 the average age of marriage in both areas was 23 for men and 18 for women. In 1981, 10 percent of the women in the West Bank married between the ages of 15-19 and 32 percent between the ages of 20-24. In 1995, the average age declined: 20 percent wed between 15-19 and 59 percent in the next age group (UNCTAD, 1994). The comparison for Gaza is between 1967 and 1995, and shows a similar trend.
A significant connection between education and age of wedlock was also found. There is a difference of seven years between the median ages of marriage, when comparing uneducated women to women with 13 years of education. A similar connection exists between education and age of first birth. The median age of women who had six years of education was 19, while the median for women with 13 years of schooling was 24 (PCBS, 1996).
The level of illiteracy in both areas is low. The mandatory school age — 6 to 15 in the West Bank, 6 to 14 in the Gaza Strip — helps explain this; thus 84.9 percent of the population in Gaza, and 83.4 percent of the population of the West Bank is literate. While 91 percent of the men are literate, the rate among women is 76 percent. The difference exists mainly among the older age group. Among those aged 15-19, 97 percent are literate (IIASA, 1997:29)
The figures about the educational levels in the West Bank and the Gaze Strip do not support the widely held presumption regarding the direct connection between the education among women and fertility. Despite a relatively high level of education, women in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have among the highest fertility rates in the world (IIASA, 1997:29).
Three Possible Scenarios for Palestinian Population Growth
Based on these figures, Palestinian researcher Yusuf Kamal Ibrahim (2003) from the Department of Geography at the University of al-Aqsa in Gaza is correct when he claims that by 2006 the number of Palestinians will equal the number of Jews in Mandatory Palestine (Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). He also claims that the number of Palestinians in this area will reach 5,467,470, while the number of Jews will be 5,453,100. Based on the high rate of natural increase among Muslims in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza — currently 3.4 percent and 3.5 percent — this estimate will accordingly come true. In another study by IIASA on population growth in Middle Eastern states, three possible scenarios about Palestinian population growth are presented, based on a number of assumptions. The main variable in these scenarios is education. Under the influence of changes in education, the difference between the lower and highest scenarios varies from 2.8 to 3.3.
The researchers forecast for 2044 is as follows: In the low forecast, 9,207,000 Palestinians will live between the sea and the Jordan River, and their rate of natural increase will be 2.87. According to the intermediate scenario, there will be 10,146,000 Palestinians in the same area, with natural increase of 3.07. The high scenario calls for 11,332,000 residents and a natural increase of 3.29. The accumulated data in third- world countries shows that, in order to maintain a standard of living of 1,000 dollars per capita per year, the Palestinian Authority (PA) will have to expand economically at an annual rate of 9 percent. This rate of growth is necessary to create employment opportunities for those joining the workforce, at the current salary levels in the Palestinian economy. Such a massive rate of growth is not sustainable without massive economic assistance that is possible only under conditions of economic and political stability. Without demographic change, we believe there is no chance for stabilizing a Palestinian society that wishes to live in peace with Israel.
The rapid demographic growth among the Arab population in Palestine and Israel is the highest among Arab nations. Will the high rate of natural increase among Palestinians in Mandatory Palestine continue at the current rate? What are the factors and processes that can reduce the rate of natural increase, and in what time frame can such a process occur? What are the economic and political consequences of the demographic changes in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, if conditions do not change, i.e., continued Israeli control over the Palestinian territories? What steps can be taken to reduce the rate of natural increase among Palestinians in these areas, if at all? What are the benefits of such a process?
Reduction in Fertility Rate in Muslim Countries
In the past two decades, there is a noticeable trend of reduction in the fertility rate in Muslim countries in the Middle East. In the 1960s, the average fertility rate among Middle Eastern countries was 7.0; in the 1980s it was 5.0; and in the year 2002 it declined to 3.3. This trend includes most of the Middle Eastern societies, and only in a minority (Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority) has it remained high, at above 5.0 children per women. This process of reduction is accompanied by a rise in the age of marriage and in the fertility curve. At a young age (15-19), there is a drastic reduction in the number of children per women, between the ages of 20-39 there is a moderate increase and among the higher age group (40-49) there is a dramatic decline (IIASA, 1996:12). This process is primarily due to the dramatic increase in the education level of women. The growth in the number of women attaining higher education influences these women’s worldview, patterns of behavior and actions in all areas of their lives. It is also expressed in changing perceptions regarding women’s status in the family and society, growing awareness of the issue of family planning, their relationship with their children, whereby improving their children’s welfare becomes a high priority, and expansion of their employment opportunities (Goujon, 1997: 6).
Even though the level of education of women in the Middle East is rising, there is still a high proportion of illiteracy in the area compared to the situation in countries with a similar per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) (PRB, 2003:6). Most of the uneducated population is in three countries: Egypt, Iraq and Morocco; over half are women (Ibid.).
At the first United Nations convention on population in Bucharest, 1974, most Middle Eastern governments disagreed vehemently with the idea of family-planning policy. Less than a decade later, this position began to change and countries in the area, like Tunisia and Egypt, started to take steps to reduce the fertility rate. Legislative changes were made, such as banning polygamy, easier access to abortions and contraceptives, expansion of health services to the whole family to reduce infant mortality and changes in the status of women. These changes marked a new trend that grew in strength in most countries of the region (IIASA, 1996; PRB, 2003). Only a few countries have not taken steps in the field of family planning as part of a comprehensive developmental program (PRB, 2003). The leadership in most countries in the region recognizes that a family-planning policy, accompanied by an enlarged investment in education and health are steps that will reap an enormous financial dividend. A recent study, which examined the development of 19 developing countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, reached the conclusion that their economic development is due mainly to the growth in the number of students with 12 years of schooling. This growth, coupled with low wages, has encouraged foreign investment — one of the main factors in the economic development of developing countries (The Middle East Quarterly, 2002).
The Changes in Birthrate in a Sample of Arab and Muslim States
The Dramatic Example of Iran
After the end of the war with Iraq at the end of 1980s, Iran launched the most encompassing family planning policy in the Middle East. The Iranian policy has been highly successful in reducing the natural rate of population growth. A series of initiatives were taken, including free distribution of contraceptives, required university courses about family planning prior to marriage, increasing pension retirement funds, improving the access of women to education, and ameliorating health services. The goal of the program was to reduce the fertility rate to 4.0 children by the 2011. In 2000, as a result of these policy activities, fertility rate was 2.0.
The dramatic reduction in the population increase rate in Iran demonstrates that a Muslim administration committed to reducing the birthrate and allocating the necessary resources can achieve this goal. The socio-cultural characteristics of societies in the Middle East are not an impassable barrier to demographic change. The success of the family planning policy in Iran does not contradict the cultural values of Islam and supports the conclusion that one must be careful when proclaiming the influence of Islam as a leading cause of population growth.
Professional literature deals extensively with the variables that control the rate of population increase and the reduction of the fertility rate in Muslim and Arab countries. Three groups of factors are particularly influential: government policy, socio-cultural values, and aspirations and personal goals (Khraif 2001, Caldwell, 2004). In the first group are planned policy steps: exposing the public consciousness to the issue of family planning, including contraceptives, and improving the access of the population, especially women, to education and the job market. In the second group there are factors relating to common socio-cultural perceptions, like the status of women in society and in the family cell and the relationship between religion and fertility. In the third group are conscious aspects of the individual, ranging from the “sociological person,” who sees recruitment in the service of collective goals as an important value, to the “psychological person,” who emphasizes self-enhancement.
Most research from the last decade about Muslim societies in the Middle East tends to over-emphasize the importance of the socio-cultural variables on reducing fertility and lowering the rate of natural increase, especially the effect of societal values regarding the place of women. Goldscheider’s, one of the prominent researchers in this field, expands on the connection between socio-cultural variables and the rate of natural increase (Goldscheider, 1996). In his research on the demographic behavior of different religious groups in Israel, he claims that the high fertility rate among Muslim women in Israel is caused by the prevalent social norms regarding the centrality of the family cell and women’s status and position within it. The limited access of women to the Israeli job market enhances their dependence on men, and strengthens the lofty paragon of the woman as a mother. The importance attached to the family cell and its glorification forces the woman to play her part in the dominant value system. A large number of research papers support this conclusion, claiming that the variable of women’s autonomy is the main factor predicting the fertility and rates of natural increase of the Arab population.
In this context, some difficult issues arise regarding the role of Islam as a variable that encourages birth (Obermeyer, 1992). The only specific conclusion that arises from the research efforts is that religion has no singular dominant effect on the demographic process. The influence of religion changes from one society to the next, especially with regard to the position of religious institutes and religious figures in the society and the state. A comparative examination will show that, in most cases, the religious authorities provide legitimacy and support for the fertility reduction policies.
The importance of government policy and societal values as dominant in the process of reducing the rate of natural increase has received support from the sphere of economic development. Increase in income is not a significant variable in predicting fertility reduction. Evidence comes from the fact that, during the economic slowdown of the 1980s and 1990s — a slowdown that was accompanied by a reduction in the per-capita GDP and a lowered standard of living (The Middle East Quarterly, 2002) — the fertility rate during the same period consistently declined (Goujon, 2000). Thus, it is possible that decline in income may be a variable that predicts fertility reduction. However, this possibility can’t be proven based on the situation that prevails in the Palestinian society, especially the part of it that lives in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Despite the fact that this society is characterized by conditions of worsening poverty and underdevelopment that are evident in declining levels of nourishment, employment, education and access to resources, especially water, the Palestinian society still has the highest fertility rate among societies in the Middle East and North Africa.
A possible lowering of the birthrate in Palestine depends on three factors: an effective government policy of reduction in the birth rate; enlistment of Muslim religious institutions to actively support this policy, as in most Arab countries and under the religious regime in Iran; and receptivity to participation of women in the workforce and encouraging them to develop a career and realize their potential. Under these circumstances, there is solid reason to believe that that fertility rates will decline, as has happened in most of the other Arab countries. The relevant question here is what is the condition that will allow this process to occur? In our judgment, only the existence of a Palestinian state enjoying political legitimacy from its constituents, with an effective leadership that can enlist the support of the religious establishment can bring about change.
Also, it is necessary to create a process of economic growth that will create employment opportunities for women. This is a necessary condition for promoting value change in the status of women in society. Change will not occur as long as the occupation continues in a way that enhances the demographic problem. First and foremost, Palestinian society won’t be able to conduct a process of economic growth that will lead to an improvement in the standard of living. Also, this enhancement of the demographic problem perpetuates the violent conflict between the two peoples.
The viewpoint that Israel can seal the borders between itself and the PA and the Arab world beyond it and ignore events in the Arab world is an illusion that is dangerous, primarily to Israel’s security. Creation of political chaos beyond its borders will ensure that terror will overcome these physical obstacles and harm Israel in different ways. In the best case, Israel will have to resign itself to ongoing losses of life, on both sides — a fact that might harm Israel’s international standing and disrupt its economic base in a global market that invests in areas that are politically stable. In the worst case, terror might fatally harm a small and crowded country like Israel. Hence, even after its withdrawal, Israel has an interest in promoting conditions that will help Palestinians create a viable state, capable of generating processes of economic, political and social development for the benefit of the Palestinian people and the whole area.
Caldwell, J.C. 2004 Demography Theory: A long View, Population and Development Review, 30(2), 297-316.
Goldscheider, C. 1996 Israel’s changing society : population, ethnicity, and development, Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press.
Goujon, A. 1997 Population and Education Prospects in the Western Mediterranean Region, IIASA.
Goujon, A. 2000 Population and Education Prospects in the Arab World: The Need for Multi-educational state Population Projections, IIASA.
Khraif, R.D. 2001 Fertility in Saudi Arabia : Levels and Determinants, A paper presented at General Population Conference, Brazil.
Obermeyer, C. M. 1992 Islam, Women and Politics: The Demography of Arab Countries,
Population and Development Review, 18(1), 33-60.