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Palestinian demographics challenged

By LUCY STALLWORTHY, UPI Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- A new study, 'Population Forecast for Israel and the West Bank 2025' challenges the notion that Israeli Jews are facing an Arab demographic time bomb. But some experts dispute its validity.

Bennett Zimmerman, Roberta Seid and Michael Wise presented their thesis at a meeting at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, on Thursday. They had previously introduced it at the Sixth Herzliya Secuyrity Conference in Israel on Jan. 23. 2006. Their report

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builds on a study entitled 'Arab Population in the West Bank and Gaza: The Million Person Gap', published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies of Israel's Bar-Illan University.

The concept of an inevitable Arab demographic threat has been influential in Israeli politics. According to Zimmerman, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "defined demography as the key issue behind the Gaza disengagement".

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Based on a 1997 census, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics projected a 2004 population of 3.8 million for the West Bank and Gaza. This combined with the 1.3 million Israeli Arabs, raised fears that the Arab population would soon reach parity with the 5.4million Jews in Israel, relegating Jews to a minority position.

However, these projections were challenged by the Zimmerman team's initial report, which investigated the 1997 PCBS data on a factor-by-factor basis.

The PCBS projected 907,000 births from 1997 to 2003. However, the figure recorded by the Palestinian Ministry of Health, and confirmed by the Palestinian Ministry of Education, fell far short of this total, standing at 669,000.

Similarly, 'The Million Person Gap' study found large discrepancies in the PCBS migration projections. The PCBS assumed mass immigration into the West Bank and Gaza, and in-migration was forecast to exceed 50,000 by 2001.

However, actual border data used by the Zimmerman team indicated net emigration, dating back to 1997, of between 10-20,000 per year. Thus, the PCBS projections had included 60-70,000 persons per year who were not actually present.

These errors, combined with other PCBS inaccuracies concerning migration to Israel, Jerusalem Arabs and residents living abroad, led the team to a 2004 population count for the West Bank and Gaza of 2.49 million. This represented a 1.34 million drop from the PCBS projection of 3.83 million.

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The new 'Population Forecast for Gaza and the West Bank 2025' extends these findings. By analyzing the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics projections for the Jewish and Israeli-Arab population, the report indicates the Jewish population is more demographically stable than previously thought.

"There has been a rigid way of looking at the region. What we have done is to open it up by looking at the data to show there are no for-gone conclusions", Zimmerman said.

The Zimmerman team found that since 2000, the Jewish fertility rate has exceeded the highest scenarios considered by the ICBS. Whereas the ICBS predicted Jewish fertility rates would remain at 2.6 births per woman in the high case scenario, the actual fertility rate for 2004 was 2.71.

In terms of Israeli-Arab fertility, the ICBS high case scenario assumed fertility rates would remain higher at 4.7. However, in actuality, the Israeli-Arab fertility rates decreased to the lowest level considered by ICBS, registering at 4.36 in 2004.

In view of these results, the new forecast adjusted the ICBS Jewish and Israeli Arab fertility ranges. Low, medium and high growth assumptions were also made for each community.

In the most likely mid-case scenario for Israel and the West Bank, the proportion of Israel Jews will decline from 67 percent of the population in 2004, to 63% in 2025. In the best case scenario, the Jewish proportion of the population will increase to 71 percent.

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"The arguments that Jews were rapidly becoming a minority were based solely on demographics", said co-author, Roberta Seid, and thus the results of both studies appear to undermine the notion of an Arab demographic time bomb.

Despite this, other observers are less convinced by the findings of the Zimmerman team, or the importance of these studies for Israeli politics.

The 'Population Forecast for Israel and the West Bank 2025' does not consider large scale Arab immigration into the West Bank, which may result from future political settlements.

Nicholas Eberstadt, a conservative U.S. demographer and AEI researcher, defended this decision. "It is very difficult to anticipate world events, they have always been a wild card for demographic projections in the Middle East", he said.

However, Tamara Wittes, senior research fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy argues this is a significant omission. "If the Palestinian state became a homeland for Palestinians, there is no reason why people would not want to return to Palestine", she said.

The possible political motivations of the Zimmerman team provide a further point of contention. Zimmerman acknowledged that both studies, "move the notch of all potential solutions towards Israel's favor." He also claimed that the team encompassed a spectrum of political viewpoints. "Some members of the team thought this data supports the Gaza disengagement, others thought it showed Israel should not disengage yet", he said.

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Eberstadt also argued the studies were not intended to support a particular standpoint. There was "disagreement among the group about policy recommendations and personal preferences" thus "the idea that this could be politically motivated is implausible", he said.

However, despite such protestations, others are skeptical. The demographic studies are "trying to make the case to the Israeli public that there is no need to worry about the demographic time bomb, and thus no need to support disengagement", Wittes said.

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