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The Palestinian Authority is gearing up for its first census in a decade, hoping the results will help Palestinian negotiators make their case in future peace talks with Israel.
Demographics play a central role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rapid Palestinian growth would bolster Palestinian territorial demands in future peace talks, while Israelis' fear of being outnumbered in areas they now control might make them more willing to consider a West Bank withdrawal.
Later this week, some 5,000 census-takers will fan out across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, first to count buildings, and in December, to count people. Results are expected by February.
The first Palestinian census, conducted in 1997, counted 2.89 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War. According to estimates by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the figure now stands at 3.9 million.
Some Israeli critics have dismissed the 1997 figures and the current projections as inflated, a charge denied by Palestinian census officials, who say the counts are being conducted under international scrutiny.
In December 2006, Israel's population included 5.4 million Jews, 1.4 million Arabs and 310,000 others, according to Israeli government figures.
The census will cost $8.6 million (â‚¬6.34 million) cost, with the Palestinian Authority paying 20 percent. The rest comes from a UN agency, Saudi Arabia, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Netherlands and OPEC, census officials said.
Hafedh Chkeir, an official with the UN Population Fund, said his agency trusts the work of the Palestinian census agency. He also said the UN is trying to bring in some Arab experts based in Jordan, but they have not yet received visas from Israel.
On Saturday, census-takers will start affixing numbers to homes, business and other buildings. In radio and TV ads, Palestinians are being urged to cooperate and not to remove the numbers.
"We hope we can use these statistics in the negotiations," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "It's not only important for the political process, but also for building the institutions of the state."
The first census was conducted at a relatively quiet time, with hopes still running high that the two sides were on their way to a final peace deal. However, since then, years of bloody fighting have reshaped the area.
During the last census, Israel did not permit a head count in the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians as a future capital. Israel said at the time that a Palestinian census there is a challenge to its sovereignty in the city.
It was not clear whether Israel would permit a census in east Jerusalem this year. Israeli officials did not return repeated messages seeking comment on the matter.
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