Israel-Palestine. A Magnifying Mirror of the Future

Against a Background of Population Growth · Israeli and Palestinian demographic forecasts point to population growth and a rise in urban density. They present the outlines of a disquieting social model, at the intersection of religion and advanced technology, with a highly ghettoised society. Which goes to show that even an advanced nation’s society may be underdeveloped.

Ronan Shenhav, 28 December 2016

(Version updated on 17 August at 4 pm)

Often reduced to a battle of statistics, Israeli and Palestinian demographics are in fact vitiated by political, ideological and religious struggles. In a country where the apartheid regime is legitimated by official texts, a high level of fecundity is easily seen as a patriotic or religious objective, or merely a matter of national security, reinforced by discriminatory laws. In the occupied territories, governed by a faulty administration, family culture, births and procreation have civic and national implications but also display a special commitment to traditional, cultural and social values. Compromised by administrative, political and military fragmentation, Israeli and Palestinian census results are distorted by various forms of sleight of hand and must be taken with a grain of salt.1

The media regularity describe the Israeli and Palestinian demographic issue as a “time bomb, waiting to explode,” but two phenomena which are not all that recent cast doubts on these alarmist predictions: the fall in the Palestinian birthrate and the sharp rise in the population density of both Israeli and Palestinian cities. The high birthrates in Palestine and Israel, which are practically identical, result in an exponential and uncontrolled population growth so that the demographic problem in the decades to come will be more environmental, social and cultural than strictly national.

The pessimistic mood prevailing in both Israel and Palestine has produced a massive withdrawal into a jeopardised family cell, with opposite results in the two countries: a rise in the birthrate for the one, a fall for the other. In Palestine, economic stagnation and general insecurity have caused a drop in fertility and the birthrate and in the average size of households. In Israel, a fertility increase is fuelled, on the one hand, by the widening income gap and impoverishment of the middle classes, and on the other by the rising tide of religiosity and the subsidies granted to orthodox Jews and settlers in the occupied territories. It is quite certain that the colonisation as well as religious faith—or both of them together—are responsible for the rising Israeli birthrate.2

End of Population and Birthrate Disparities

Palestine has a population of five million (three million in the West Bank, two million in Gaza). That of Israel numbers 8.5 million, 20% of whom are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship (exclusive of the Occupied territories). If we consider the entire territory of both countries, their populations should be practically identical by the end of 2018: 6.7 million Palestinians and 6.8 million Israeli Jews. Drawn from the official censuses, these figures must be taken with some caution. However it is generally agreed that the two populations and their fertility are more or less on a par. A kind of stalemate has been reached in the pernicious battle for demographic advantage.

As in most Arab countries, the Palestinian birthrate has been steadily falling over the past twenty years or so, and today it is around 3 children per woman in age of procreating.3 A document published on 11 July 2017 by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) confirms this decline in the fertility rate, from 5.6 in 1997 to 3.7 in 2013. According to this official document the gross birthrate has fallen from 45 per thousand in 1990 to 32 per thousand in 2016 and should be around 29 per thousand by 2020. These figures are corroborated by the steady decline in the average number of household members, which was 6.4 in 1997 and 5.2 in 2016, again according to the PCBS. Figures for Gaza are higher than for the West Bank, but the gap is gradually closing.

In Israel, the present birthrate is also around 3 children per woman in age of procreating.4 But here there is an enormous disparity between the secular population and the orthodox Jews, with the latter at 2.1 as against 6.7 for the most conservative fringe, the haredim or “men in black.”

[« Israel’s Demographic Miracle », an article a bit too jubilant by Ofir Haivry, provides more detailed distinctions corresponding to differing degrees of orthodoxy.] Alon Tal, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Tel Aviv, is the author of an essay on Israel’s increasing population density.5 In it, he clearly states the problem: “Israeli demographic growth is driven up by the fertility of the ultra-orthodox groups (. . .) The [counterproductive] financial compensations awarded each birth perpetuate and multiply manifestations of poverty. (. . .) How is it that one child in three lives below the poverty line in Israel? Those who believe that those policies have favourable consequences for the vulnerable sectors of the population know nothing of their actual effects or the statistics which reveal them.”

If current tendencies continue to prevail (falling curve in Palestine, rising in Israel) it is likely that the population of the “Hebrew State” will grow more quickly than that of the Palestinian territories. It is also possible that they will remain on a par for some time to come. Either way, both the demographic growth and the rising urban density will run riot.

The Blind Spots of Israeli Demographics

Religion plays a key role in Israeli census-taking which distinguishes between Jews, Arabs and “non-Jews.” Besides contributing to the Judaisation of the territory and the demographics battle, indexing as it does the birthrate on the degree of religious orthodoxy makes it possible to conceal the fact that the highest rates have been shifted to the occupied territories and the colonies in order to accelerate the growth of their population. By inciting ultra-orthodox groups to move to the occupied territories where they can benefit from lower rents and various subsidies, the government is settling its poor in the ghettoised outskirts and at the same time speeding up the Judaisation of Palestinian land (the Jews from Arab countries sent to Galilee and the Negev in the fifties and sixties had already been subjected to a similar strategy). The increasing demographic weight of ultra-orthodox Jews in the colonies—they constitute a good third of the 400,000 West Bank settlers—also has the advantage of creating a rapprochement with the ultra-nationalists and the Zionists in crocheted kippahs, traditional mainstays of the colonisation, among whom the birthrates are also quite high though more uncertain. This cohabitation has other “favourable” consequences for the colonisation program: it places the ultra-religious individuals in a more political environment, in both ideological and electoral terms. It includes them in a militarised context which brings them closer to the army, while also making it possible to better control them. It makes it easier to include them in the circuits of the market economy, a modernity which brings them closer to the world of work, consumption and the capitalist way of life. The marginalisation of the ultra-orthodox, on the one hand, and their integration into the colonial logic on the other certainly have an impact on the distribution of populations and their growth. But these are factors concealed by Israeli demographics, which also fails to take into account the ethnic cleansing and wars of deportation waged against the Palestinians, aimed at evicting them and confining them in Bantoustans.

Overheated Urban Density in Tel Aviv, Gaza and Ramallah

Bnei Brak is an ultra-orthodox community to the East of Tel Aviv. The urban density there is 25,000 inhabitants per Km2, nearly that of the largest Asian cities such as Hong Kong or Calcutta. This is due to poverty, the communal lifestyle and the birthrate (the density of the largest colonies in the occupied territories, also communitarized ghettos, is very high as well).

In seventy years, i.e. since the creation of Israel, the country’s population has multiplied tenfold and is by now 90% urbanised. Most spectacularly, greater Tel Aviv, which extends from Herzlya to Rehovot in the West and from Kefar Sava to Petah Tikva in the East numbers over 2,000,000 inhabitants, one fourth of the country’s total population. In one or two generations, Israel could become one the most densely populated nations on the planet, faced with serious ecological, urban and social problems. Alon Tal has come to this scathing conclusion: “The Israeli population can reasonably be predicted to reach 23 million inhabitants by 2050. Bolder forecasts place the figure at 36 million by mid-century as well.” This accelerated growth, whose only equivalent is to be found in Africa, has been confirmed by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, which has already put forth the figure of 15 million for the year 2048.

As for Gaza, it is meant to be the most densely populated area on the planet. In strictly statistical or mathematical terms, this is incorrect but it is a belief which points to a unique situation nonetheless, conjugating three separate factors: a critical demography combining high density and rapid growth, extreme poverty and unemployment, territorial enclosure and confinement. Of these three factors, confinement is the most formidable: it makes adjustments impossible, leaves no room for those decisions which allow every society to move ahead in one way or another and adapt itself to new conditions. The average density in Gaza is 5,000 inhabitants per Km2, and is over 10,000 in the townships and heavily urbanised neighbourhoods. Although the Gazaoui birthrate is falling, it is still high, between 3 and 4% and should lead to a population of around 4 million in the next twenty years.

As for Ramallah, its growth is out of control. The population has practically doubled in the last twenty years, from 200,000 to 400,000. On the Qualandoa side, the entrance to the city is an impressive conglomeration of high-rise buildings, an urban landscape which heralds a runaway demographics in the years to come.

Intellectual Hyper-Specialisation

In Israel, the consequences of urban densification are well-known and the ensuing woes are not very original. They form “a long list of social and environmental pathologies which affect every Israeli citizen: schools are among the most crowded of any Western country, traffic jams are a national nightmare, hospitals are among the most overcrowded of the OECD countries. And the same is true (. . .) of the Israeli judiciary system.” This is how Alon Tal described this infernal trend in an article published in Tikkun on 1 November 2016 : “This booming population growth also has a critical effect on the housing market (. . .) the building stock is expected to increase by 2% each year, with the construction of 60,000 units (. . .) Many animal species are under threat, some are on a path to extinction. A larger population produces more waste, more pollution and more greenhouse gases.”

The present trends of Israeli demographics will lead to major sociological changes: the ultra-orthodox communities will represent a third of the population around 2060, as against 12% in 2018, not to mention the proponents of colonial messianism and observant Jews in general. In the decades to come, Israel will become an ultra-religious state with a shrinking secular fringe of the population, increasingly tempted to emigrate. Already, the need to integrate ultra-orthodox males into the workforce (the women in this community work more) is regarded as an economic priority. The exponential increase in the number of large families below the poverty line is a threat to both employability and productivity: welfare expenditures are a liability for the Israeli economy, as well as for the social and political balances. As Alon Tal has warned: “We are prisoners of a system that is out of control and the gap between public facilities and the social demand is constantly growing.”

On the basis of these observations, about which a majority of demographers agree, some predictions may be made. There is a risk of intellectual exhaustion, as religion takes control of education, research and cultural activities. The lead blanket of confessionalism will lead to a general decline in knowledge levels, products of the intellect, and a depletion of creative energy. Two sectors will probably be spared: hi-tech security and military equipment, on the one hand, and the biosciences on the other. The ultra-orthodox population will continue gradually moving into the high-tech field (and hence into the army and military industry), as is already the case.6

It is hard to imagine how a population closed in on itself could continue to maintain two highly specialised sectors at the forefront of the globalised economy. But on a national scale it is possible to envisage a mutation of the human brain leading to extreme specialisation. In the near future, Israel might become a highly specialised laboratory for security and biotechnology.

An “Advanced” but Underdeveloped Society

This combination of hyper-specialised technology and extreme demographic and social pathologies offers a glimpse of the future of all our societies, “advanced” but underdeveloped.

Various questions or objections have been raised in connection with these demographic observations concerning Israel and Palestine. The first has to do with the very low level of Israeli family allowance (approximately 50 euros per child and per month) ($57—£44): with such small sums, how can Israel possibly boost its birthrate? Over the last four years, Israel has doubled these allowances to the detriment of other social expenditures, also quite modest. Indeed the low level of social protection and the increase in poverty must be regarded as factors contributing to higher birthrates and faster demographic growth, all the more so as Israel is spending less on welfare and more on its armed forces.7

As a consequence, the over-inflation of military budgets and increasing social inequality have a major influence on the birthrate.

Another interesting refutation concerning urban density, has been voiced by Gilad Malach, a member of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a research organisation and think tank based n Jerusalem, and author of a report on employment and work in the ultra-orthodox community: “It is not necessarily a disaster. Singapore and Hong Kong are denser still and yet that does not keep them from moving ahead, from being successful. Big cities act like States.” And he points to a significant turning point, away from the American and Western paradigm and towards the Asian model (China with its ghettoised proletariat is not all that far from Israel). His observation is correct as far as Singapore and Hong Kong are concerned, two territories which are far more compact than Israel. But the geopolitical context of those two Asian city-states is very different. Israel is more isolated and is waging a war which involves a considerable financial drain, a suicidal colonial option and a rocky confessional future. The comparison with Asia is not without interest but once the similarities have been set forth, they are undermined by the differences. With respect to safeguarding the environment, Israel is now taking some precautions, but these lag far behind the “factors of growth.” The creeping impoverishment and all its corollaries are there to show that the official indicators derived from the GNP and average income figures completely hide the disparities and distort social realities. It might seem reasonable to question the degree to which these disorders are serious, especially as they are not always visible to the naked eye. But this is because in a communitarised country where confinement under many guises is a veritable culture, problems easily escape our notice. In fact, this is the main purpose of ghettos: to hide controversial issues and poverty. And this lack of transparency, which may be carried to the point of outright denial, affects the victims of social injustice when their frustrations are manipulated by those in power for political or patriotic reasons.

Over and beyond the gross disparities between Israel and Palestine, between the oppressors and the oppressed, it is possible to observe, on the basis of demographic projections, various social and environmental convergences. While Palestinian behaviour patterns are gradually beginning to resemble those of Israel, the face of the Hebrew State is being disfigured, it would seem, by a silent poison which is bringing it closer, also very slowly but surely, to the model of underdevelopment which the Gazaoui have been forced to endure. Israel is a developed society, “advanced” we might call it, but these adjectives remain very relative and not only when compared with norms of democracy and standards of living. In examining the pathologies wrought by the lags and failures of Israeli demographics, we see how a certain modernity fuels increasingly blatant weaknesses, how a certain type of growth produces underdevelopment. And it is primarily when we observe those millions of young people, full of dreams and ambitions, endowed with extraordinary intelligence, in societies where youth forms a majority of the population, when we see their present misfortunes and deprivation, indeed their desperation, that we grasp the extent to which an “advanced” society can generate backwardness of all kinds.

Which is why, on all these issues and the geopolitical developments which underlie them, Israel, Palestine and the Middle East as a whole should not be perceived as barbarous entities, but rather as harbingers of the insidious pathologies likely to infect every nation, including the most advanced. We should look upon these Middle-Eastern countries as magnifiers, areas where the future of the world is revealed vividly and urgently, in spite of all the exceptions and excesses of contemporary history.

1Israel refuses to let the agents of the Palestinian authority take into account the Arab population of Jerusalem, thought to number between 350,000 and 400,000. This kind of thing affects the accuracy of the official figures provided by both governments.

2The well-known Israeli proficiency in the treatment of infertility and medically assisted procreation has only a minor impact on these figures. Its main role is in the sale of patents abroad.

3Wafa, the Palestinian news agency, puts it at 4.4, the World Population Review at 2.68.

4Birthrates in Israel and Palestine are far higher than in the countries of the OECD, where the average today is 1.6. In 2002, the birthrate for the Israeli Palestinian population stood at 4.2, against 2.6 for the Jewish population. In 2002, the Palestinian population of Israel had a rate of 4.2, the Jews were at 2.6.

5The Land Is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel, Yale University Press, 2016.

7Israel is a rich country with low tax rates and inadequate safety nets, where state revenues are steadily falling. In most countries of the OECD (to which Israel belongs), social, health and education expenses are equal to a third of the GDP while military expenditures are around 2%. In Israel the ratios are different: social, education and health expenses amount to about 23% of the GDP (ten points less!) while military expenses are nearly 5%.