Aerial view of Gaza City

The West Bank and Gaza: A Population Profile

What do data tell us about the people who live in Gaza and the West Bank?

(April 2002) The West Bank and Gaza are unique entities in today’s world. Parts of the two areas consist of a series of autonomous, Palestinian-governed regions. The West Bank, approximately the size of Delaware, is bordered by Israel to the west and Jordan to the east. Gaza (also called the Gaza Strip) is approximately twice the size of Washington, DC, and shares a border with Israel to the north and east and Egypt to the south.

Political History

Britain ruled the area it called Palestine after World War I under a mandate from the League of Nations. Following Britain’s withdrawal in 1948, war broke out between Palestine’s Arab majority and Jewish minority for control of the territory, the former eventually supported by troops from surrounding Arab states. Jewish forces won, and the State of Israel was created from 77 percent of Palestine. Jordan and Egypt took control of the remaining 23 percent. Jordan annexed the area under its control and called it the West Bank; Egypt maintained control over what became known as Gaza but never annexed it. Israel seized both areas during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and later annexed East Jerusalem while keeping the bulk of the West Bank and Gaza under occupation. Israel also drew international criticism by erecting more than 180 Jewish settlements in the areas.

As part of the peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the two sides signed a series of agreements beginning in 1993 that provided for a limited withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank and Gaza and the establishment of an autonomous, PLO-run government in areas inhabited by Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority (PA) began functioning in 1994.

The two sides deferred negotiations over “final status issues” to a later date. Among these issues were whether the Palestinian-governed regions of the West Bank and Gaza would become an independent state and what its borders would be. The result is that the autonomous Palestinian areas remain locked in an unviable, semi-statal condition. Following the staged Israeli withdrawal, the PA exercises full civil and security control over 80 percent of Gaza. The remainder contains Jewish settlements and is still under Israeli control.

The situation in the West Bank is much more complicated. The Israeli-Palestinian agreements created three zones: Area A consists of territory under the full civil and security control of the PA; Area B is territory under the PA’s civil and partial security control, but Israeli forces exercise predominant control; and Area C remains under full Israeli control and contains the Israeli settlements. By 2000, 17 percent of the West Bank was classified as Area A, 29 percent as Area B, and 59 percent as Area C. Much of the area where the PA exercises some type of control does not form a contiguous territory, however. Gaza is separated from the West Bank, while in the West Bank, Areas A and B are themselves divided among 227 separate areas (199 of which are smaller than 2 square kilometers) that are separated from one another by Israeli-controlled Area C. All but 40,000 West Bank Palestinians live in Areas A and B.

A Young and Growing Population

The population of the West Bank and Gaza is almost completely Palestinian Arab. The bulk of these are Sunni Muslims: 92 percent of West Bankers and 99 percent of Gazans, with the rest Christians. In addition to the Palestinian population, approximately 214,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and Gaza, according to the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, DC [Data are from 2002.]

West Bank Gaza
Population (2000 estimates) 2.0 million 1.1 million
Births per 1,000 population* 37 43
Deaths per 1,000 population* 4 4
Infant deaths per 1,000 live births* 22 26
Rate of natural increase* 3.2% 3.9%
Total fertility rate* 5.0 6.6
Life expectancy at birth* 72 years 71 years
Capital The Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital, although they do not exercise authority over the city. Ramallah and Gaza City serve as the de facto capitals of the West Bank and Gaza, respectively.

* Palestinian population only.
Source: US Census Bureau.


The population of the West Bank and Gaza boasts several notable features. The population growth rate is among the highest in the world: 3.4 percent in the West Bank and 4.0 percent in Gaza, according to US Census Bureau estimates. A full 45 percent of the West Bank population are children under 15 years of age, compared with 50 percent in Gaza. Palestinian-controlled Gaza is also one of the most densely populated places on earth with some 4,091 people per square kilometer. Regionally, the Palestinians exhibit high levels of literacy. Among those 15 years and older, the rate is 92 percent for males and 80 percent for females, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. About 825,000 Gazans (78 percent of total) and their descendants are registered refugees from the 1948 war as are 583,000 West Bankers (30 percent of total). Not all refugees reside in refugee camps: 55 percent of Gaza refugees live in 8 refugee camps while only 27 percent of West Bank refugees live in 19 camps.

Life expectancy at birth is relatively high compared with Arab countries. But the territory faces several significant health concerns relating to underdevelopment, the legacy of occupation, and ongoing political turbulence and violence. The Palestinian uprising since October 2000 itself includes a major health problem. Between October 2000 and late February 2002, more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed and over 17,000 injured in clashes with Israelis. Israeli forces have reentered parts of Areas A and B, prevented movement among many Palestinian areas, and laid siege to Palestinian towns. The escalation in tensions between the two sides has resulted in reduced access to health and medical facilities for some Palestinians.

Some economic indicators actually declined during the early years of the peace process and have recently worsened. During 1992-1996, real per capita gross domestic product for Palestinians declined by over 36 percent, because of the combined effects of falling aggregate incomes and high population growth, according to Palestinian Chambers of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture. The poverty rate in September 2000 stood at 21 percent. During the first three months of the uprising that began in October 2000, the situation worsened as the Palestinian economy contracted by 50 percent and unemployment rose to 40 percent. The Jordan Investment Trust estimates that the economy suffered a total of US$6.8 billion in losses during the first 12 months of the uprising.

Pollution is an environmental and health risk. Of particular concern is groundwater pollution by organic and inorganic contaminants that seep into the aquifers, especially in Gaza. These include untreated sewage (only 38 percent of households are connected to sewage systems), garbage and industrial waste, and fertilizers from agricultural runoff. The West Bank and Gaza also face problems from dumps, including Israeli dumps over which Palestinians have no control.

Michael R. Fischbach is an associate professor of history at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, where he specializes in modern Middle Eastern history.


  • Palestine Economic Research Institute (MAS), Economic Monitor 5 (June 1999).
  • Jordan Investment Trust, Weekly Review & Analysis 1, no. 19 (November 11, 2001).
  • US Census Bureau, International Data Base, accessed online at, through March 20, 2002.
  • Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), accessed online at, on April 16, 2002.
  • Palestinian Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, accessed online at, on April 16, 2002.