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October 20, 2009

Jewish-Arab Fertility Gap Closes

The Jewish Week published a piece by Yoram Ettinger on the downplayed, but highly significant, demographic shift occurring among Israelis and Palestinians. Israel's Jewish population, in contrast to the populations of other developed countries, has experienced an increase in fertility in recent years. Meanwhile, Palestinian society has seen a steady decline in fertility to the point that the fertility gap has almost closed between the two groups.

Recognition of this demographic shift could have significant repercussions on the Arab-Israeli peace process. For decades an underlying assumption was that for its own good, Israel was compelled to divest itself of the West Bank because the rapidly increasing Palestinian population would eventually outnumber the Jewish population and lead to an untenable situation for the democratic state.

Ettinger has played an important role in upsetting this conventional wisdom. In 2005, he co-authored with Shahaf, Sohar, Passig, Shvout, Faitelson, Zimmerman, Seid and Wise, a study showing that the official Palestinian population figures in the West Bank and Gaza were based on unrealistic growth rate forecasts. The actual Palestinian population in 2004 was closer to 2.4 million for the West Bank and Gaza rather than the 3.8 million official figure.

Israeli Arab birthrates have also diminished. As a result, Ettinger calculates that Jewish births have increased from 69 percent of all Israeli births in 1995, to 75 percent in 2009.

The decline in Arab births in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel corresponds to the decline throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Modernity has begun to take hold in many of these countries, driving down birthrates. The Palestinian population has become urbanized and better educated. These factors drive down birthrates almost everywhere.

Scrutiny of the population claims in Israel and the West Bank should be extended to the population of Palestinian refugees in the neighboring countries. UNRWA, the UN organization charged with looking after Palestinian refugees, has a vested interest in a consistently growing population as this helps establish the level of international aid apportioned to UNRWA. Could it be that a similar systematic exaggeration of numbers has occurred among the recipients of UNRWA services as well?

It remains to be seen whether this new demographic reality will herald a shift in strategic thinking within Israel or for that matter the Arab world. The demographic shift, however, does not change the underlying reality of an increasingly crowded land with limited space serving as home to two hostile peoples who both continue to multiply.

Posted by SS at October 20, 2009 02:43 PM

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