Time to end demographic fear-mongering

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On Monday morning, the Deputy Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Brig.-Gen. Guy Goldstein and the deputy head of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, Col. Uri Mandes, shocked members of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee when Mandes claimed that there are three million Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria today.

Committee chairman Avi Dichter noted that if his data are true, then the Palestinian population has tripled in 25 years. Absent mass immigration – and the PA has experienced net emigration for the past 23 years – there is no way that could have happened. As Dichter said, if their numbers are true, the Guinness Book of World Records needs to be alerted.

Mandes wasn’t done. He said there are two million Palestinians in Gaza. Added together with Israel’s 1.8 million Arab citizens, if Mandes’s numbers are accurate, then there is population parity between Jews and Arabs west of the Jordan River.

But that’s the thing. His numbers are inaccurate.

Mandes acknowledged that the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria (which COGAT oversees) isn’t the source of his data. The Palestinian Authority is the source.

What Mandes failed to acknowledge is that the PA’s demographic data was exposed as fraudulent 13 years ago. In late 2004, the American-Israel Demographic Research Group (AIDRG), an independent team of American and Israeli researchers, published an in-depth assessment of the PA’s population numbers.

The AIDRG’s researchers didn’t do anything fancy. They simply audited the PA’s data. Using basic addition and subtraction, the researchers showed that the PA exaggerated the Palestinian population by some 50%.

The PA double counted Jerusalem Arabs. The 300,000 or so Arabs of Jerusalem are already included in Israel’s Population Registry. It did the same thing with the 100,000 Palestinians who married Israelis, received Israeli citizenship and live in Israel. The PA also double counted the Israeli children of those formerly Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The PA included 400,000 Palestinians who live abroad in its Population Registry. In subsequent years, it added the 100,000 children of those Palestinian émigrés who live abroad.

The PA claimed net positive immigration of 14,000 people annually. In fact, since 1995 the PA has experienced high net annual emigration. Although the precise emigration data are unknown, several hundred thousand Palestinians have emigrated in the past 22 years.

As leading US demographer Nicholas Eberstadt said when the group’s initial studied was published, “The conclusions of this report are not only plausible but quite persuasive… [I]t relies upon rigorous logic and simple, but very powerful arithmetic to reach its results.”

Goldstein and Mandes were at the Knesset on Monday to discuss the ongoing strike of Civil Administration employees. They used the alleged size – and alleged growth – of the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria as a justification for the employees’ demand for higher wages and for the Civil Administration’s demand for a higher budget.

Notably, Goldstein’s and Mandes’s use of Palestinian population data to make their case for more money mimicked the behavior of the Palestinians themselves. And the fraud at the base of their actions was exposed for the world to see just three months ago.

Last December the Lebanese Central Bureau of Statistics together with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported that there are 174,535 Palestinians living in Lebanon.

That was startling news to donor countries to UNRWA, the UN agency charged with caring for them. According to UNRWA, there are 449,957 Palestinians in Lebanon. In other words, UNRWA, whose budget is paid for by donor countries based on the number of people under its charge, exaggerated that number by more than 60%.

The AIDRG updates its data every year. According to Yoram Ettinger, one of the leaders of the AIDRG, based on those updates, there are 1.85 million Palestinians in Judea and Samaria and another 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza today.

Obviously, the disparity between the Palestinian data – adopted without question by the IDF – and the data produced by the researchers from AIDRG presents Israel with a problem. On the one hand, if nothing else, the AIDRG researchers showed that the Palestinian data are false. On the other hand, no official body has formally adopted their findings. In the meantime, Israel can either go along with the IDF and embrace the Palestinian data it knows are false, or it is flying blind.

Recently, MK Moti Yogev, the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s subcommittee on Judea and Samaria, discovered the negative practical implications of the absence of credible Palestinian demographic data for policy-makers. Yogev asked the National Infrastructure Ministry to present his committee with long-term plans to develop adequate electricity and water infrastructure for Judea and Samaria. When the ministry and Civil Administration submitted its report, Yogev was dismayed to see it was based on the PA’s demographic claims and assumed minimal Jewish population growth.

He demanded a new study.

The problem is that even with the best of intentions, without credible demographic data, the government cannot make long-term plans. On a national level, it cannot make strategic decisions about the long-term administrative status of Judea and Samaria. On a more basic day-to-day policy level, it cannot produce plans to satisfy the requirements of the current or assessed future population of the areas.

Unfortunately, as Mandes’s statements on Monday demonstrated, in recent years COGAT’s intentions have been difficult to credit.

Last July, Ettinger asked the Civil Administration to provide him with the 2016 data regarding the number of Palestinian births, and the number of Palestinian entries and exits from the international passages. The information is not classified.

In previous years, Ettinger and his fellow researchers received similar data without delay. But his July request languished unanswered for months. Frustrated, Ettinger turned to the Justice Ministry and asked that it order the Civil Administration to respond to his request on the basis of Israel’s Freedom of Information Law.

On February 13, Capt. Uzal Nissim, the public affairs officer for COGAT, finally responded to Ettinger’s request.

Nissim informed Ettinger that his request for data was rejected. He gave two justifications for COGAT’s refusal to share the unclassified data. First Nissim said that revealing the number of Palestinians born and the number of Palestinians who entered and exited through international crossings “raises the fear of harming [Israel’s] international relations.”

Second, he said, the Civil Administration is barred from sharing the data with private citizens under the 1995 Interim Agreement with the PLO. The Interim Agreement set the conditions for Israel’s transfer of civil and military responsibilities in Judea and Samaria to the PLO.

Nissim’s first assertion is absurd on its face. Obviously, sharing such data will have no impact whatsoever on Israel’s foreign affairs.

Nissim’s second claim is simply untrue. The Interim Agreement (which the PA has abrogated repeatedly) places no restrictions on Israel’s right to share Palestinian population data. It simply transferred the responsibility for gathering the data and updating the Population Registry to the PLO. And the fact that the Palestinians received the authority to conduct censuses doesn’t mean that Israel cannot check the data or share it with the public.

Ettinger attests that until Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai was appointed coordinator of government activities in the territories in 2013, the Civil Administration willingly shared its data with him and his fellow researchers.

All of this points to the conclusion that COGAT didn’t deny Ettinger the data due to legal concerns. COGAT is hiding the data from researchers because Mordechai and his officers do not want to share them, not because they cannot share them.

Goldstein’s and Mandes’s statements reignited the public debate about whether Palestinian demography represents an existential threat to Israel’s Jewish character.

Since 2000, when it became clear the PA will never make peace with Israel, demography has been the only card champions of an retreat from Judea and Samaria have had to play. And so it has become the key justification for their position that Israel must quit Judea and Samaria.

Since the AIDRG’s initial study was first published in 2004, champions of retreat have shrugged their shoulders. While clinging to the PA data and contemptuously dismissing the AIDRG’s finding without explaining why they are wrong, champions of retreat have said that anyway it doesn’t matter. Whatever the number of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, we don’t want them in Israel and therefore we need to pull out.

This week was no different.

When MK Ofer Shelah, who justifies his support for an Israeli retreat from Judea and Samaria on demography, was challenged with the fact that COGAT’S numbers were false, he said that it doesn’t matter how many Palestinians there are. There are too many.

But of course it does matter. If Ettinger is correct and there are 1.85 million Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, then Israel will still have a two-thirds Jewish majority if it incorporates Judea and Samaria.

And if two-thirds isn’t enough of a majority for Shelah and his colleagues, it is far from clear why they think the best way to solve Israel’s demographic challenge is by establishing a hostile Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. Such a state will operate alongside the terrorist-controlled hostile Palestinian state in Gaza, (which itself was formed due to their demographic concerns).

A Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria can be trusted to allow hundreds of thousands of foreign, hostile Arabs to immigrate to its territory. With its new immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and beyond, that state will constitute an existential demographic – and strategic – threat to the shrunken, enfeebled Jewish state. In other words, far from solving Israel’s demographic concerns, a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria will escalate them to the level of strategic threat.

The most direct solution to Israel’s demographic challenge is what it always has been – Jewish immigration, aliya.

There are 700,000 Jews in the former Soviet Union. There are 500,000 Jews in France, 300,000 in Germany and 300,000 in Britain and 50,000-75,000 in South Africa. If Israel sets a goal of bringing 500,000 Jews to Israel in the next 10 to 15 years, it can achieve it.

And if Israel brings another 500,000 Jews to Israel, then even with Judea and Samaria it will reinstate its 75% majority. Indeed, Israel may end up with an even larger majority since Jewish fertility rates outpaced the Palestinian fertility rates in Judea and Samaria in 2012 and the gap has only grown in ensuing years.

Next week, Mordechai will complete his tour of duty. Maj.-Gen. Kamil Abu Rokun will replace him as coordinator of government activities in the territories.

In light of the commotion Goldstein and Mandes caused this week, the first order the government should give Abu Rokun is to work transparently with the Central Bureau of Statistics and produce a credible estimate of the Palestinian population of Judea and Samaria generally and of the Palestinian population in Area C specifically. Only with credible data can Israel develop long-term strategies for governing Judea and Samaria. And only with such data can the government assess the budgetary needs of the Civil Administration.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post. 

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