The Politics of Numbers

Extract from an article in Issue 17, December 10, 2007 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. Pushing her sunglasses back over a headscarf to check a neighborhood survey map, Raniah Haseebah identifies the villa at 5 El Baluo'a Street and scrawls a number in red crayon on the wall. Then she rings the bell. "I'm a representative of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, and we're doing preliminary work for the census,'' the 25-year-old census-taker introduces and explains herself to the young man who answers. "I'm giving you this questionnaire." Just before that, Haseebah confided that many Palestinians suspect that she is an undercover tax collector or intelligence officer. "In the Palestinian territories, there is a fear of unknown people," she says. "My job is to convince them that this professional work is only for our purposes. You need to find a way to convince them to open up." As if on cue, Mahmoud Massouneh, the frowning son of the building owner, derides the census as he grudgingly accepted the form. "Do you see the settlement of Beit El over there? Go ask the Israelis for the data. If the statistics bureau doesn't have the numbers, how come the Israelis do?" On the defensive, Haseebah protested: "But the census bureau is credible. Maybe you're not aware of this, but we did a census 10 years ago." Massouneh was unimpressed. "Don't be stupid," he said. "What kind of state are you conducting a census for? Where is the country you're talking about?" Palestinian census-takers were going house to house in November to generate the tally that will loom over negotiators as the renewed peace talks advance. But the credibility of the new data on the population and the economy faces challenges, ranging from Israel's movement restrictions on field workers and charges of political manipulation from the Israeli right to the indifference and paranoia of average Palestinians. Some call it the politics of numbers. In the decade since the inaugural Palestinian census of West Bank and Gaza residents, according to many analysts, the fear of the "demographic problem" (or "bomb," as fearful Israelis sometimes refer to the expanding Palestinian population) has taken root as the linchpin of the Israeli consensus in favor of the two-state solution. Gidi Grinstein, head of Reut, a Tel Aviv-based think tank and a member of then-prime minister Ehud Barak's negotiating team at the 2000 Camp David peace negotiations, says demography will influence how Israelis and Palestinians draw a new border. "The demographic argument, according to which in the long run Israel cannot continue controlling the Palestinian population while staying a democracy, has been the driving force behind Israel's determination to end control," he said. Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki says that Israel's focus has shifted from geography to demography. Worry about returning to Israel's narrow pre-1967 borders has been trumped by fear of waking up one day to find Israeli Jews a minority versus Palestinian Arabs between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. And Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola explains, "At face value a census is neutral... but there are also political considerations. The data is supposed to serve for administration and planning, but it also has implications for the perception of what Israel is and what Palestine is. That is, the question of ... the identity of the state.'' According to Della Pergola, today Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are estimated at 3.4 million (based on the PCBS count of 2.6 million in 1997). Israel's population of 7.1 million includes a one-fifth Arab minority which considers itself Palestinian. With a fertility rate that outstrips Jewish Israelis (even including the large ultra-Orthodox families), Palestinians are expected to draw even in the not-so-distant future, according to the estimates cited by Della Pergola. When census figures are released early next year, demographers will have the most definitive picture in a decade about population growth trends in the West Bank and Gaza. This will also include negative growth: the pressures of Palestinian infighting combined with Israeli security restrictions have spurred a noticeable exodus from the West Bank and Gaza. Says pollster Shikaki, "The intifada has seriously affected population figures. We don't know how many people left or how many people returned. No doubt this will be a major factor in the debate." For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.