Demography of the Israel-Palestine conflict

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The Israel-Palestine conflict has always been about demography and migration. But the substance is changing.

Zionism is predicated on the migration of the Jewish people back to its historic homeland. All the pre-1948 attempts by the international community to rationalize the resulting Jewish-Arab conflict over land focused on a demographic partition. Like most wars, the 1948 war and its aftermath produced major population movements: the exodus of many Palestinians–some voluntarily, some by force of Jewish arms–from areas held by Israel, and the exodus of many Jews from Arab and other Muslim countries.

Perhaps most strikingly, in recent months and years the conflict has come to be perceived by a growing portion of the Israeli Jewish public as a demographic, rather than a geographic conflict. The anticipated emergence of a Palestinian Arab majority in the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, coupled with the sense that the Palestinian mainstream still seeks somehow to deny Israel’s legitimacy and eventually to "Palestinize" the country–have obliged Israelis to contemplate unilateral withdrawal to lines that improve the country’s demographic status as a Jewish state while reducing the lands (and the Palestinian population) under its control. This is the most dramatic development in Israeli politics, particularly on the right, in recent years.

Unlike the economic factors that appear to motivate most instances of population movement within and from the Middle East today, these demographic issues have a nationalist and political background. But there is an economic theme as well: an overlay to the Israeli-Palestinian and Israel-Arab conflicts that is essentially classic "north-south" in nature. There are today, inside Israel’s internationally recognized borders, some 100,000 Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza, and even Jordan, as well as an estimated 10,000 or so Egyptians. The vast majority of these illegal immigrants were motivated to move to Israel by economic rather than ideological forces: the chance to find work, rather than, say, the aspiration of the children and grandchildren of 1948 refugees to "return".

Some of the Egyptian illegal workers have to endure interrogation by their own security services before they can leave the country for Israel. But they earn eight times as much doing menial jobs in Israel than back home. Some of the Palestinian illegals are exploited ruthlessly by their hosts, themselves Palestinian citizens of Israel, in towns and villages located on the Israeli side of the green line. One of the Palestinian complaints about Israel’s security fence project is that, no matter where Israel puts the fence, it will stop the free movement of this illegal labor, hence deprive more Palestinians of their livelihood.

While the fence is being constructed mainly for security reasons–and while its many abuses and departures from the green line can still be linked to geographic motivations concerning the settlements–its demographic significance is not lost on Israeli strategic planners. They reason that, if Israel’s relative prosperity currently attracts so many illegal migrants despite conditions of conflict or, with Egypt, cold peace, then the much hoped for warm peace, if and when it ever comes, will bring with it a problematic demographic downside. This is particularly so when we assume that most of the migrant laborers from the neighboring "south" would be Palestinians who end up remaining in the country.

This explains at least one aspect of the constant tension in Israel’s guest-worker economy over the past decade–between the importation of agricultural and construction workers from Palestine, on the one hand, and from countries like Thailand, China and Romania, on the other. Obviously, the security issue is the main reason for preferring the latter over the former. Yet few if any Palestinian day laborers have ever been apprehended participating directly in acts of terrorism. Moreover, many Palestinian workers have always commuted on a daily basis, thereby reducing the likelihood they will remain in Israel, whereas for several years now a new Israel Immigration Police has been busy rooting out and deporting Ghanaians, Filipinos and Columbians who have overstayed their work visas.

Yet when Prime Minister Sharon indicates, in the course of planning the withdrawal from Gaza, that eventually he hopes to cease all movement of both laborers and goods between Israel and that territory, his rationale is not only security. It is also the recognition that "northern" Israel is sitting next to a heavily overpopulated and under-developed "southern" time bomb in areas like the Gaza Strip.

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