The Israeli military does not know how many Palestinians live in different areas of the West Bank, an army official told lawmakers on Tuesday, even though such information is vital to administering the lives of residents there, as well as pertinent to any proposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics has been responsible for providing Israel with demographic data of the West Bank since the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Lt. Col. Eyal Ze’evi, head of the IDF Civil Administration responsible for civil affairs of the Palestinians, told a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that there are 2.93 million residents of the West Bank who hold Palestinian identity cards, not including an estimated 300,000-385,000 East Jerusalemites.
Experts present at the discussion, however, disputed the IDF’s figures, which were based on the Palestinian Authority’s.
Demographics expert Prof. Sergio DellaPergola said his research showed 2.4 million Palestinians lived in the West Bank as of the end of 2015. Former Israeli diplomat Yoram Ettinger, who has in the past accused the PA of immensely inflating its population in order to receive more foreign aid, placed the number at 1.75 million Palestinians in the West Bank at 2015’s end.
Yet, while vast discrepancies clearly exist as to the total number of Arabs throughout the entire West Bank, the crux of the Knesset discussion was about the unknown number of Palestinians living in Area C, where Israel maintains full civilian and military control, where most Israeli settlers reside, and which some right-wing politicians hope Israel will soon annex.
Tuesday’s Knesset discussion was convened by the head of the subcommittee, MK Moti Yogev, a member of the right-wing national-religious Jewish Home Party, which has long stated its goal of annexing Area C. He is also a member of the Tekumah faction within Jewish Home, which is considered more hard-line than the rest of the party.
Yogev opened the meeting by saying the discussion would focus on the statistics in Area C. He related that when he was a high-ranking IDF officer in the West Bank, he managed to obtain an exact headcount of every Palestinian in his district, including within the cities of Tulkarem and Qalqilya. He argued that Israel needed to know the full number of residents the state is responsible for in order to make “future decisions,” including on education, planning and infrastructure.
After Ze’evi, the IDF Civil Administration chief, told the committee that the army had no statistics specific to Area C because the PA’s population figures for the entire West Bank were not broken down by individual areas, Yogev demanded that he bring the committee the statistics within two weeks.
Zionist Union MK Hilik Bar also slammed the Civil Administration, saying, “Israel knows how many tanks the Syrian army has and how many missiles are in Hezbollah’s hands, but it can’t count how many Palestinians live under its rule in Judea and Samaria?”
Ze’evi protested, saying that the matter was too complex and that two weeks wasn’t nearly enough time.
Though the army does not know many Palestinian live in Area C, that hasn’t prevented senior members of the Jewish Home party from making policy statements based on uncorroborated estimates regarding the West Bank’s demography.
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett’s “stability initiative” recognizes just 48,000 Palestinians in Area C (compared to 350,000 Israeli settlers), downplaying the “demographic threat” to Israel’s Jewish majority if the area — comprising 61 percent of the West Bank — were to be annexed.
The “Area C Vulnerability Profile,” published in 2014 by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Occupied Palestinian Territories, known as OCHA, estimated that 297,900 Palestinians live in 532 residential areas in Area C. The number, however, is hotly contested, even by elements in the Israeli left.
Shaul Arieli, a retired colonel who mapped the boundaries of areas A, B and C in 1995 as head of the IDF’s Interim Agreement Administration in the West Bank, told The Times of Israel in 2014 that in reality there were closer to 75,000 Palestinians in the region under question. He criticized the report for conflating the numbers within towns and cities that straddled Area C but are located mostly within Area B.
Alon Cohen Lipshitz, who co-authored a 2007 demographic report on Area C for the Israeli human rights group Bimkom, which specializes in the field of planning, also criticized the UN’s report.
While Lipshitz’s statistics included residents of Area C who lived in towns and cities that are also partly within Area B, he said the OCHA staff failed to reasonably estimate how many Palestinians were within the Area C part of these dual-area locations.
Lipshitz told the Times of Israel on Wednesday that the current number was likely closer to 200,000 Palestinians in Area C. He said he was basing his numbers on the estimated natural growth among the 150,000 Palestinian residents estimated in his 2007 report.
Elhanan Miller contributed to this report