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Israel: ‘The Jewish population is winning the demographic war’

By Sofiane Orus-Boudjema
Posted on Wednesday, 14 July 2021 11:06

Masked Palestinians wearing the Palestinian flag during clashes with Israeli security forces stand n front of the Dome of the Rock Mosque at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, June 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Numbering 158,000 in 1949, today, close to two million Palestinian citizens live in Israel. Palestinian leaders long hoped that such population growth would shift the balance of power in their favour, but the reality is much more nuanced, as demographer Youssef Courbage explains.

Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, reportedly once said: “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there’s no problem with that.” The supporter of Greater Israel and leader of a broad, diverse coalition is notorious for his anti-Arab stances.

Despite the role of Arab politician Mansour Abbas, who was recently appointed deputy minister of Arab affairs, in the coalition that ousted Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, institutional discrimination continues to impact Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The problem has become particularly glaring now that some two million Palestinians live in Israel, compared to 158,000 in 1949. During the recent eruption of conflict in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, some Israeli Arabs even took control of their respective towns for a few hours, a first in the history of the Jewish state. But these actions also became easy fodder for the Israeli right, who suggested that the country faces a growing ‘threat’ from within.

But what is really happening under the surface? Is the idea that Israel could become a majority Muslim state within a few decades plausible? Youssef Courbage, the former research director of the French National Institute for Demographic Studies, answered these questions and more in an interview.

Why are Palestinians living in Israel?

Youssef Courbage: A better question would actually be, why are Israelis living in Palestine? At the dawn of the 20th century, Jewish people were a very small minority in Palestine, comprising just 8% of the population in 1918.

The first demographically significant Jewish settlements began to take root in the second half of the 19th century. The Jewish presence in Palestine started to increase with the continued development of the British Mandate for Palestine after World War I, which spurred Jewish immigration to modern-day Israel. With Jews being persecuted in Europe in the wake of Nazism, they were going into exile all over the world and in Palestine in particular. In 1947, they made up 32% of the population of Palestine.

So it was the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel that created a Jewish majority in Palestine?

Yes, that’s right. In 1948, the Jewish armed forces were better equipped than their Arab counterparts intervening in Palestine. That’s why the Jewish army was able to defeat the Arabs, who hailed from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Transjordan, and who fought alongside Palestinian volunteers. In the resulting armistice agreements, Israel was granted 78% of Palestine, while the remaining portion of the territory would later be annexed by Transjordan. Nearly all Palestinians were expelled from their homes and, according to estimates, the conflict resulted in somewhere between 750,000 and 800,000 Palestinian refugees.

A part of the Arab population decided to stay in what has since become the State of Israel.

The ideal situation for David Ben-Gurion and the Israeli authorities would have been to keep as few Palestinians around as possible. But there were barriers, especially at the international level, that made it impossible to expel the entire Palestinian population, to the extent that around 148,000 Arabs were living in the State of Israel after 1948.

Today, two million Palestinian Arabs live in Israel. This was much talked about during the latest round of fighting because Arabs, who typically have remained calm and composed in the past, publicly voiced their outrage. There were violent incidents between Jewish Israelis and Israeli Arabs in cities such as Lod, Haifa and Acre.

Do you think that Arabs could someday become the majority in Israel?

Palestinians have been trying since 1948 to use their high birth rate as a shield, to the point that the population’s fertility rate reached a record nine children per woman, the highest in the world. Even though Jewish fertility in Israel was much higher than fertility among diaspora Jews, it was still a great deal lower than that of Palestinian women.

Today, the situation is quite different, as the ‘demographic explosion’ of Israeli Arabs has faded. Their fertility rate is down, while that of Jewish Israelis is on the rise, for various reasons. The Jewish population is starting to win the demographic war with Israeli Arabs. The latest statistics are telling: fertility rates among Jewish women are higher than those of Arab women.

Have demographic concerns influenced policies in Israeli Arab communities?

Yes, and such concerns have always been voiced, especially by leaders like Yasser Arafat. He spoke for Palestine and for the Palestinian diaspora. He said that Palestinian families should have 12 children; two for the family and 10 for the Palestinian cause. But Palestinians ended up turning their back on ideology.

Do Arabs living in central and northern Israel see Lebanon as a possible alternative?

No, Arab emigration out of Israel has been very limited. Moving could mean losing your home. Putting down roots, moving as little as possible and having a high birth rate are qualities that have helped Palestinian citizens of Israel maintain their presence. Their population has grown by not emigrating. Jewish Israelis didn’t try to move into an Arab city like Nazareth; instead, they created their own, less populated city nearby, Nazareth Illit.

Going forward, Palestinian citizens of Israel will no longer have a fertility advantage over Jewish Israelis, but their rootedness in the country, at a time when many Jews are leaving, is their strength. Some one million Israelis currently live overseas.

Why are Jewish Israelis emigrating elsewhere?

Some non-religious or secular Jews feel stifled by the oppressively religious, right-wing atmosphere in Israel, while others are concerned about education. Fast population growth, which has been particularly marked in Jewish communities, is having an adverse impact on the quality of education. Accordingly, some liberal journalists have been signalling the need to bring down the fertility rate because the education system is buckling under demographic pressure.

Israel’s mandatory military service also deters a portion of Jewish Israelis who don’t want to put their children’s lives at risk. Many Jewish Israelis are returning to their country of birth. Unlike for incoming immigrants, it’s difficult to get a clear picture of outgoing emigrants through statistics.f

Do Jewish Israelis form a united community?

Israeli society isn’t very uniform. European-born Jews tend to be secular, while Arab Jews are no longer religious. ‘Ethnic’ sentiments have certainly played a role. Golda Meir [prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974] once referred to newly arrived Soviet Jews as “the real Jews” that Israel needed. But Israeli society has a common enemy in Palestinians in occupied territories and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Is it possible for the Jewish and Arab populations to live in harmony?

The Israeli left, who have often been more attentive to the Palestinian plight, are virtually non-existent in politics today. There are still some non-profit organisations, like B’Tselem, in which Jews and Palestinians work together to defend Palestinian interests, such as preventing expulsions, the most recent example being in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Do Palestinian citizens of Israel face institutional discrimination?

Yes, especially since the Nation-State Bill was passed in 2018. On top of that, Israeli-Arab political parties are divided. In the last elections, they managed to get 15 members elected to the legislature. The fact that the Islamist Ra’am party, which joined Yair Lapid’s coalition of right-wing and far-right partners, has broken ranks with other Israeli-Arab parties has done a lot of harm to the Palestinian cause.

In the occupied territories, Israelis encouraged the development of Hamas as a way to weaken Fatah and divide Palestinians.

Who supports Palestinian citizens of Israel today?

No one supports them anymore. Arab countries don’t trust Israeli Arabs or like the idea of Palestinians having Israeli passports. Palestinians who live in occupied territories are more aware of the problems Palestinian citizens of Israel face. When occupation began and the borders were opened, some of them were able to see their relatives again.

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