(April 2001) Immigration and fertility are crucial elements in what French demographer Philippe Fargues calls a “demographic contest” brought on by the protracted conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Israel’s high level of immigration has added to its numbers, while the Palestinians’ high fertility has boosted their population. The burgeoning populations on both sides and the emphasis on numbers make the 3.7 million Palestinian refugees — the world’s largest refugee population — critically important in the Middle East peace process.

Table 1 details the numbers of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip who are registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Nearly one-third of all Palestinian refugees (1.2 million) live in camps administered by UNRWA.

Table 1
Palestinian Refugees Registered With UNRWA as of June 2000

Country/Locale Total Registered
Refugees (thousands)
% Living
in Camps
Jordan 1,570 18%
Lebanon 376 56%
Syria 383 29%
West Bank 583 27%
Gaza Strip 825 55%
Total 3,737 32%

Source: UNRWA, “Refugees,” accessed at www.un.org/unrwa/refugees/me.html, on Jan. 17, 2001.

These Palestinians became refugees when they or their parents or grandparents fled their homes during the 1948 war (when the state of Israel was established) or during the 1967 war (when Israel occupied the Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights). The right of the refugees to return to the homes that they or their ancestors fled, and the right to financial compensation for those who do not return, is one of the most difficult issues in the Middle East peace process.

Both sides of the conflict press their positions in negotiations based on demographic facts on the ground. That is why the positions on the refugees are so far apart. On the Israeli side, the government strongly opposes allowing the 1948 refugees and their descendents to return to Israel proper. Arabs and other non-Jews already make up one-fifth of the population of 6.2 million, and their number has generated public debate about Israel’s viability as a democratic Jewish state. Israelis contend that the Arab countries should host their Palestinian brothers and sisters, and help assimilate the Palestinian refugees in their societies. Israelis assert that integrating Palestinians should be easy because they speak the same language and share the same religion and culture.

However, except for Jordan — more than half of whose population is of Palestinian origin — the Arab countries’ policies on the admission and integration of Palestinians have been less than welcoming. This is partly because of their national political and economic constraints, but largely because Arab governments believe that if they absorb Palestinian refugees, they will kill the Palestinians’ chances of having a state of their own. Palestinians living in Kuwait, many of them for decades, were the first people expelled in the aftermath of the 1990 Iraqi invasion because Palestinian leaders sided with Iraq. Libya expelled 30,000 Palestinians in 1995 to express its opposition to the Middle East peace process. Since the oil boom of the 1970s, many Palestinians have found jobs in the oil-rich Gulf states, but regardless of their length of stay in these countries, their status — like that of other labor migrants — remains that of foreign workers. Iraq is the only Arab country that allows Arab migrants from other countries to naturalize, but its law excludes Palestinians who wish to become citizens.

To discourage integration into Lebanese society, Palestinian refugees and other foreigners living in Lebanon are allowed to work only in a limited number of occupations. In 1990, the Lebanese constitution was amended to make resettlement of Palestinian refugees illegal. The case of Lebanon is unique because the country has a large Christian population and a delicate power-sharing arrangement based on religion that reflects the demographics of the past. Hesitant to disturb the status quo, in which Christians hold the top job, Lebanon has not conducted a census for decades, because the result would show a large Muslim majority. The admission of the Palestinian refugees, who constitute approximately 10 percent of the population according to Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States, would have a critical impact on the balance between Christians and Muslims.

Can the Palestinian Authority, its economy and infrastructure ravaged, handle the return of refugees to the West Bank and Gaza? Even without the return of the Palestinian refugees from neighboring countries, the West Bank and Gaza face their own population explosion. If the current rate of natural increase (3.7 percent per year) continues, the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza will double in 20 years. Forty-six percent of the population is under the age of 15. Such a young population (see figure below) means that population growth will continue even if fertility declines sharply. Where virtually the oldest refugee population in the world will be settled remains crucial for both the Arab and Israeli sides, and it remains to be seen.

Farzaneh (Nazy) Roudi is a policy analyst at PRB.

For More Information

Philippe Fargues, “Protracted National Conflict and Fertility Change Among Palestinians and Israelis,” Population and Development Review 26, no. 3 (September 2000).

Abdel R. Omran and Farzaneh Roudi, “The Middle East Population Puzzle,” Population Bulletin 48, no. 1 (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 1993).

Howard Schneider, “For Palestinian Refugees, Rhetoric Confronts Reality,” The Washington Post, Jan. 12, 2001.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics: www.cbs.gov.il.

Palestinian Bureau of Statistics: www.pcbs.org.

Growth of the Palestinian Population

Today the number of Palestinians is estimated to be 8.6 million, a sixfold increase from their post-World War II population of 1.4 million. Only half of them live in historic Palestine (1 million in Israel); the rest are dispersed in other parts of the Middle East and around the world. The largest number of Palestinians outside the Middle East live in the United States. More than 2 million Palestinians live as refugees in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that the number of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza is more than 3.1 million, with 1.2 million of them living in Gaza. On average, Palestinian women living in Gaza give birth to 7.4 children each, and those living in the West Bank give birth to 5.4 children each. Such high fertility is remarkable given the high level of education of Palestinian women living in the West Bank and Gaza: The average Palestinian woman has 12 years of schooling. Countries with comparable fertility levels are those with some of the lowest female education and literacy, and some of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality.

Age Structure of the Palestinian Population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 1996

Source: UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, Demographic and Related Socio-Economic Data Sheets for Countries of ESCWA, as assessed in 1996, No. 9 (1997).