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The Demographics of Palestine refers to the demography, or the statistical study of the population of Palestine. This article provides an overview to the different demographic studies related to the demographics of the mandatory Palestine, and the demographics of pre-British Palestine, consisting the southern parts of Ottoman Syria. The studies of current regional demographics also cover the present demography of Palestinian Authority and its people, as well as population figures for the entire area covered by modern day Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip, Jordan, and parts of Syria and Lebanon.
Up until the early Christian era the demographics are reasonable clear, based on the Bible and on recent regional archaeological studies. However, after the Bar Kochba revolt the make-up of the population of Palestine is debated due to data being sparse in the historical record.
During the Proto-Canaanite period agricultural communities were established. By the early Bronze Age (3000–2200 BCE), independent Canaanite city-states existed on the plains and in coastal regions. During the Iron Age the Philistines, a part of the Sea People probably of Aegean origin, occupied the southern coast of Canaan, and mingled with the local population, absorbing the Canaanite language and losing their separate identity by the 500 BCE. At the same time the Israelites emerged from a dramatic social transformation that took place amongst the Canaanite people of the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE, with no signs of violent invasion or even of peaceful infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group from elsewhere. The Israelites are therefore descendants of the original early Iron Age occupants of the uplands of Canaan. Following the withdrawal of the Egyptian Empire around 1150 BC, the Israelites were able to extend their territory by gradually re-integrating with their Canaanite neighbours. This expansion was initially held in check by battles with the Philistines.
Eventually, however, towards the end of the tenth century BCE, the Israelites established a kingdom with its capital at Samaria. Some time later, in the eighth century BC, as this kingdom weakened under pressure from the advancing Assyrians, a second kingdom of Judah emerged with its capital at Jerusalem.
Modern estimates place the population of ancient Palestine at a maximum of around one million. According to Israeli archeologist Magen Broshi, "... the population of Palestine in antiquity did not exceed a million persons. It can also be shown, moreover, that this was more or less the size of the population in the peak period - the late Byzantine period, around AD 600" Similarly, a study by Yigal Shiloh of The Hebrew University suggests that the population of Palestine in the Iron Age could have never exceeded a million. He writes: "... the population of the country in the Roman-Byzantine period greatly exceeded that in the Iron Age...If we accept Broshi's population estimates, which appear to be confirmed by the results of recent research, it follows that the estimates for the population during the Iron Age must be set at a lower figure."
After the Babylonian conquest in 597 BCE the Samaritans emerged as a people in Palestine, and the Phoenicians expanded along the coastal plain. With the successive waves of return of the Israelites from exile in the mid-5th century BCE, by the time of Ezra (~458 BCE) Palestine consisted of the returnees, the people of Samaria and other Jews who had remained behind, the related Samaritans, and "the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons, so that the holy seed have mingled". From that point on there is no further mention in the Bible of living Canaanites. At the start of the Hellenic period, Jews therefore dominated the population of Palestine, with an ancestry prime of which was Canaanite, plus lesser contributions of Aegean (Philistines), Egyptian, and Syrian and Mesopotamian (Amorites).
The Persians were conquered by Alexander the Great in 322 BCE. In 160 BCE the continuing Hellenisation of Palestine led to the Maccabean revolt. The composition of the population, from the end of the Hasmonaean dynasty had a large preponderance of Jewish elements compared to strictly localized Greek (pagan) centres, together with a dominant Samaritan enclave in Samaria. The Roman conquest of Judea led by Pompey took place in 63 BCE. The Roman occupation encompassed the end of Jewish independence in Judea, the last years of the Hasmonean kingdom, the Herodian age and the rise of Christianity, the Jewish war with Rome, and the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second Temple. The total population of Pharisees, the forerunners of modern Rabbinic Judaism, was around 6,000 ("exakischilioi"), according to Jospehus.
Local population displacements occurred with the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem - "In the earlier revolt in the previous century, 66–73 CE, Rome destroyed the Temple and forbade Jews to live in the remaining parts of Jerusalem; for this reason, the Rabbis gathered instead on the Mediterranean coast in Yavneh near Jaffa". Dispersal to other parts of the Roman Empire occurred:
"No date or origin can be assigned to the numerous settlements eventually known in the west, and some may have been founded as a
result of the dispersal of Palestinian Jews after the revolts of CE 66-70 and 132-5, but it is reasonable to conjecture that many, such as thesettlement in Puteoli attested in 4 BCE, went back to the late republic or early empire and originated in voluntary emigration and the lure of trade and commerce."
Three events caused the Jewish population dominance to change after 70 CE (in the Late Roman period). The first was the rise of Christianity. The second involved the Jewish Diasporas resulting from a series of Jewish rebellions against the Roman occupation, starting in 66 CE which resulted in the destruction of the second Temple and of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the subsequent expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem, and followed by the rebellion against Hadrian in 132 CE - the Bar Kokhba revolt - "The Judaean Jewish community never recovered from the Bar Kochba war. In its wake, Jews no longer formed the majority in Palestine, and the Jewish center moved to the Galilee." The third event was the 'ascension' of Constantine the Great in 312 CE and Christianity becoming the official state religion of Rome in 391 CE. Already by the mid-3rd century the Jewish majority had been reported to have been lost, while others conclude that a Jewish majority lasted much longer - "What does seem clear is a different kind of change - immigration of Christians and the conversion of pagans, Samaritans, and Jews eventually produced a Christian majority".
Reliable data on the population of Palestine in the pre-Muslim period, both in absolute terms and for the relative sizes of each community, do not exist. The demographics during that period are therefore based on minimal data. Although many Jews were killed, expelled or sold off into slavery after the 66-70 CE and the 123-125 CE rebellions, the degree to which these transfers affected the Jewish dominance in Palestine is rarely addressed. What is certain is that Palestina did not lose its Jewish component. Goldblatt concludes that the Jews may have remained a majority into the 3rd century CE and even beyond. He notes that 'Jewish followers of Jesus' (Jewish Christians) would not have taken part in the rebellions'. Non-Christian conversions from Judaism after the Bar Kochba revolt were not given much attention.
"Indeed, many must have reacted to the catastrophe with despair and total abandonment of Judaism. Apostates from Judaism (aside from converts to Christianity) received little notice in antiquity from either Jewish or non-Jewish writers, but ambitious individuals are known to have turned pagan before the war, and it stands to reason that many more did so after its disastrous conclusion. It is impossible to determine the number who joined the budding Christian movement and the number who disappeared into the polytheist majority."
The highest population of the 3rd to 7th centuries probably occurred in the Byzantine period. Most scholars consider that the proportion of Jews decreased during these centuries, a loss of dominance not related to any specific diaspora and at dates not agreed to by historians. For instance, by counting settlements, Avi-Yonah estimated that Jews comprised half the population of the Galilee at the end of the 3rd century, and a quarter in the other parts of the country, but had declined to 10–15% of the total by 614. On the other hand, by counting churches and synagogues, Tsafrir estimated the Jewish fraction at 25% in the Byzantine period. Stemberger, however, considers that Jews were the largest population group at the beginning of the 4th century, closely followed by the pagans. In contrast to Avi-Yonah, Schiffman estimated that Christians only became the majority of the country's population at the beginning of the 5th century, confirmed by DellaPergola who estimates that by the 5th century Christians were in the majority and Jews were a minority.
The Christian-dominated Palestinian society of the late-Byzantine era, having been formed by conversions plus various migrations, was to undergo yet another upheaval. In 629 Palestine was invaded by Arabs from the Hejaz. By 635 AD, Palestine, Jordan and Southern Syria, with the exception of Jerusalem and Caesarea, were in Muslim hands. Jerusalem capitulated in 636.
Levy-Rubin advocated that conversion was not commonplace during the early-period of the Islamic empire (the Umayyad Caliphate [661 - 750 CE] and the Abbasid Caliphate [750 - 1258]) - “It has been presumed until now that [the presence of Muslims in Samaria] was solely a result of immigration of Arab Muslims into the area. … a small part of this Muslim population originated in Samarian population which converted to Islam during the early Muslim period mainly as a result of difficult economic conditions. As of now this is the only evidence we have of mass conversion to Islam in Palestine during the early Muslim period.”. Arabization of the Levant involved the realm’s new subjects adopting the Arabic language and Islam.
"Very few Arabs were productive settlers of the land, an activity they despised; a few were great landlords who used native tenants to cultivate their estates; but generally they were nomadic tribesmen, soldiers and officials all of whom lived off the jizya (or poll tax) and the kharaj (or land tax) paid by the occupied peoples in return for the protection of their lives and property and for the right to practise their own religion. Because the jizya and the kharaj could be imposed only on non-Muslims, the Arabs had little interest in making converts to Islam, a contributory reason why Syria, Palestine and Egypt would remain overwhelmingly Christian for centuries to come."
According to Atimal and Ellenblum the Islamization of Palestine had its beginnings in the early Islamic period (ca. 640-1099 C.E.), but had halted and apparently even been reversed during the time of Frankish rule (Kingdom of Jerusalem). In the aftermath of the Muslim reconquest, which began in 1187, and the advent of Ayyubid rule (1187-1260) in parts of Palestine and then the Mamluk rule, it appears that the process of religious conversion was accelerated. With the beginning of the Ottoman period in 1516, it is commonly assumed, and may well be that the Muslim majority in the country was more-or-less like that of the mid-19th century.
From the mass of detail in the registers, it is possible to extract something like a general picture of the economic life of the country in that period. Out of a total population of about 300,000 souls, between a fifth and a quarter lived in the six towns of Jerusalem, Gaza, Safed, Nablus, Ramle, and Hebron. The remainder consisted mainly of peasants, living in villages of varying size, and engaged in agriculture. Their main food-crops were wheat and barley in that order, supplemented by leguminous pulses, olives, fruit, and vegetables. In and around most of the towns there was a considerable number of vineyards, orchards, and vegetable gardens.
In his paper 'Demography in Israel/Palestine: Trends, Prospects and Policy Implications' Sergio DellaPergola, drawing on the work of Bachi (1975), provides rough estimates of the population of Palestine west of the River Jordan by religion groups from the 1st century onwards summarised in the table below.
|First half 1st century CE||Majority||-||-||~2,500|
|5th century||Minority||Majority||-||>1st century|
|End 12th century||Minority||Minority||Majority||>225|
|14th century before Black Death||Minority||Minority||Majority||225|
|14th century after Black Death||Minority||Minority||Majority||150|
|Figures in thousands.|
According to Alexander Scholch, Palestine in 1850 had about 350,000 inhabitants, 30% of whom lived in 13 towns; roughly 85% were Muslims, 11% were Christians and 4% Jews
|Figures from Ben-Arieh, in Scholch 1985, p. 388.|
According to Ottoman statistics studied by Justin McCarthy, the population of Palestine in the early 19th century was 350,000, in 1860 it was 411,000 and in 1900 about 600,000 of which 94% were Arabs. In 1914 Palestine had a population of 657,000 Muslim Arabs, 81,000 Christian Arabs, and 59,000 Jews. McCarthy estimates the non-Jewish population of Palestine at 452,789 in 1882, 737,389 in 1914, 725,507 in 1922, 880,746 in 1931 and 1,339,763 in 1946.
In Chapters 46, 39, 52 and 56 of his Innocents Abroad, American author Mark Twain wrote of his visit to Palestine in 1867: "Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. Palestine is desolate and unlovely -- Palestine is no more of this workday world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition, it is dreamland."(Chapter 56) "There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country". (Chapter 52) "A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action. We reached Tabor safely. We never saw a human being on the whole route". (Chapter 49) "There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent – not for thirty miles in either direction. ...One may ride ten miles (16 km) hereabouts and not see ten human beings." ...these unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness..."(Chapter 46)
These descriptions of the often quoted non-arable areas few people would inhabit are as Twain says, "by contrast" to occasional scenes of arable land and productive agriculture: "The narrow canon in which Nablous, or Shechem, is situated, is under high cultivation, and the soil is exceedingly black and fertile. It is well watered, and its affluent vegetation gains effect by contrast with the barren hills that tower on either side"..."Sometimes, in the glens, we came upon luxuriant orchards of figs, apricots, pomegranates, and such things, but oftener the scenery was rugged, mountainous, verdureless and forbidding"..."We came finally to the noble grove of orange-trees in which the Oriental city of Jaffa lies buried"..."Small shreds and patches of it must be very beautiful in the full flush of spring, however, and all the more beautiful by contrast with the far-reaching desolation that surrounds them on every side 
Bayard Taylor who wrote of the Jezreel Valley in 1852 ".. one of the richest districts in the world"..."The soil is a dark-brown loam, and, without manure, produces annually superb crops of wheat and barley."  Laurence Oliphant wrote in 1887, again of the Valley of Jezreel "..a huge green lake of waving wheat, with its village-crowned mounds rising from it like islands ... it presents one of the most striking pictures of luxuriant fertility which it is possible to conceive"
Kathleen Christison, an American author who spent sixteen years as an analyst for the CIA, was critical of attempts to use Twain's humorous writing as a literal description of Palestine at that time. She writes that "Twain's descriptions are high in Israeli government press handouts that present a case for Israel's redemption of a land that had previously been empty and barren. His gross characterizations of the land and the people in the time before mass Jewish immigration are also often used by US propagandists for Israel." For example she noted that Twain described the Samaritans of Nablus at length without mentioning the much larger Arab population at all. The Arab population of Nablus at the time was about 20,000.
During the 19th century, many residents and visitors attempted to estimate the population without recourse to official data, and came up with a large number of different values. Estimates that are reasonably reliable are only available for the final third of the century, from which period Ottoman population and taxation registers have been preserved.
After a visit to Palestine in 1891, Ahad Ha'am wrote:
From abroad, we are accustomed to believe that Eretz Israel is presently almost totally desolate, an uncultivated desert, and that anyone wishing to buy land there can come and buy all he wants. But in truth it is not so. In the entire land, it is hard to find tillable land that is not already tilled; only sandy fields or stony hills, suitable at best for planting trees or vines and, even that after considerable work and expense in clearing and preparing them- only these remain unworked. ... Many of our people who came to buy land have been in Eretz Israel for months, and have toured its length and width, without finding what they seek.
In 1852 the American writer Bayard Taylor traveled across the Jezreel Valley, which he described in his 1854 book The Lands of the Saracen; or, Pictures of Palestine, Asia Minor, Sicily and Spain as: "one of the richest districts in the world.", while Lawrence Oliphant, who visited Palestine in 1887, wrote that Palestine's Valley of Esdraelon was "a huge green lake of waving wheat, with its village-crowned mounds rising from it like islands; and it presents one of the most striking pictures of luxuriant fertility which it is possible to conceive."
According to Paul Masson, a French economic historian, "wheat shipments from the Palestinian port of Acre had helped to save southern France from famine on numerous occasions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."
In 1856 H.B. Tristram said of Palestine "A few years ago the whole Ghor (Jordan Valley) was in the hands of the fellaheen, and much of it cultivated for corn. Now the whole of it is in the hands of the Bedouin, who eschew all agriculture…The same thing is now going on over the plain of Sharon where….land is going out of cultivation and whole villages rapidly disappeared….Since the year 1838, no less than twenty villages there have thus erased from the map, and the stationary population extirpated."
In 1920, the League of Nations' Interim Report on the Civil Administration of Palestine stated that there were hardly 700,000 people living in Palestine:
There are now in the whole of Palestine hardly 700,000 people, a population much less than that of the province of Gallilee alone in the time of Christ. Of these 235,000 live in the larger towns, 465,000 in the smaller towns and villages. Four-fifths of the whole population are Moslems. A small proportion of these are Bedouin Arabs; the remainder, although they speak Arabic and are termed Arabs, are largely of mixed race. Some 77,000 of the population are Christians, in large majority belonging to the Orthodox Church, and speaking Arabic. The minority are members of the Latin or of the Uniate Greek Catholic Church, or--a small number--are Protestants.The Jewish element of the population numbers 76,000. Almost all have entered Palestine during the last 40 years. Prior to 1850 there were in the country only a handful of Jews. In the following 30 years a few hundreds came to Palestine. Most of them were animated by religious motives; they came to pray and to die in the Holy Land, and to be buried in its soil. After the persecutions in Russia forty years ago, the movement of the Jews to Palestine assumed larger proportions. Jewish agricultural colonies were founded. They developed the culture of oranges and gave importance to the Jaffa orange trade. They cultivated the vine, and manufactured and exported wine. They drained swamps. They planted eucalyptus trees. They practised, with modern methods, all the processes of agriculture. There are at the present time 64 of these settlements, large and small, with a population of some 15,000.
Whether there was significant Arab immigration into Palestine after the beginning of Jewish settlement there in the late 19th century has become a matter of some controversy. According to Martin Gilbert, 50,000 Arabs immigrated to Mandatory Palestine from the neighboring lands between 1919 and 1939 "attracted by the improving agricultural conditions and growing job opportunities, most of them created by the Jews". The Arab population of Palestine doubled during the mandatory period from 670 000 in 1922 to over 1,2 million in 1948. The estimates on the scope of Arab immigration to Palestine during this period range from insignificant numbers to almost 300 000. According to Itzhak Galnoor, although most of Arab population increase came from natural increase, the Arab immigration to Palestine was not insignificant. Based on his estimates approximately 100 000 Arabs immigrated to Palestine between 1922 and 1948.
The overall assessment of several British reports was that the increase in the Arab population was primarily due to natural increase. These included the Hope Simpson report (1930), the Passfield White Paper (1930) the Peel Commission report (1937) and the Survey of Palestine (1945). The 1931 census of Palestine considered the question of illegal immigration since the previous census in 1922. It estimated that unrecorded immigration during that period may have amounted to 9,000 Jews and 4,000 Arabs. It also gave the fraction of persons living in Palestine in 1931 who were born outside Palestine: Muslims, 2%; Christians, 20%; Jews, 58%.
In a 1974 study, Bachi proposed an average of 900 per year for the number of Muslims who were detected as illegal immigrants but not deported. He noted the impossibility of estimating illegal immigration that was undetected, or the fraction of those persons who eventually departed. He suggested, though qualifying it as a "mere guess", that the unexplained increase in the Muslim population between 1922 and 1931 was due to a combination of unrecorded immigration (using the 1931 census report estimate) and undercounting in the 1922 census.
While noting the uncertainty of earlier data, Bachi also observed that the Muslim population growth in the 19th century appeared to be high by world standards:
"[B]etween 1800 and 1914, the Muslim population had a yearly average increase of an order of magnitude of roughly 6-7 per thousand. This can be compared to the very crude estimate of about 4 per thousand for the "less developed countries" of the world (in Asia, Africa, and Latin America) between 1800 and 1910. It is possible that some part of the growth of the Muslim population was due to immigration. However, it seems likely that the dominant determinant of this modest growth was the beginning of some natural increase."
McCarthy explains, "... evidence for Muslim immigration into Palestine is minimal. Because no Ottoman records of that immigration have yet been discovered, one is thrown back on demographic analysis to evaluate Muslim migration." McCarthy argues that there is no significant Arab immigration into mandatory Palestine:
From analyses of rates of increase of the Muslim population of the three Palestinian sanjaks, one can say with certainty that Muslim immigration after the 1870s was small. Had there been a large group of Muslim immigrants their numbers would have caused an unusual increase in the population and this would have appeared in the calculated rate of increase from one registration list to another... Such an increase would have been easily noticed; it was not there.
The argument that Arab immigration somehow made up a large part of the Palestinian Arab population is thus statistically untenable. The vast majority of the Palestinian Arabs resident in 1947 were the sons and daughters of Arabs who were living in Palestine before modern Jewish immigration began. There is no reason to believe that they were not the sons and daughters of Arabs who had been in Palestine for many centuries.
McCarthy also concludes that there was no significant internal migration to Jewish areas attributable to better economic conditions:
Some areas of Palestine did experience greater population growth than others, but the explanation for this is simple. Radical economic change was occurring all over the Mediterranean Basin at the time. Improved transportation, greater mercantile activity, and greater industry had increased the chances for employment in cities, especially coastal cities... Differential population increase was occurring all over the Eastern Mediterranean, not just in Palestine... The increase in Muslim population had little or nothing to do with Jewish immigration. In fact the province that experienced the greatest Jewish population growth (by .035 annually), Jerusalem Sanjak, was the province with the lowest rate of growth of Muslim population (.009).
Gad Gilbar has also concluded that the prosperity of Palestine in the 45–50 years before World War I was a result of the modernization and growth of the economy owing to its integration with the world economy and especially with the economies of Europe. Although the reasons for growth were exogenous to Palestine the bearers were not waves of Jewish immigration, foreign intervention nor Ottoman reforms but "primarily local Arab Muslims and Christians."
Demographer Uziel Schmelz, in his analysis of Ottoman registration data for 1905 populations of Jerusalem and Hebron kazas, found that most Ottoman citizens living in these areas, comprising about one quarter of the population of Palestine, were living at the place where they were born. Specifically, of Muslims, 93.1% were born in their current locality of residence, 5.2% were born elsewhere in Palestine, and 1.6% were born outside Palestine. Of Christians, 93.4% were born in their current locality, 3.0% were born elsewhere in Palestine, and 3.6% were born outside Palestine. Of Jews (excluding the large fraction who were not Ottoman citizens), 59.0% were born in their current locality, 1.9% were born elsewhere in Palestine, and 39.0% were born outside Palestine.
Yehoshua Porath believes that the notion of "large-scale immigration of Arabs from the neighboring countries" is a myth "proposed by Zionist writers". He writes:
As all the research by historian Fares Abdul Rahim and geographers of modern Palestine shows, the Arab population began to grow again in the middle of the nineteenth century. That growth resulted from a new factor: the demographic revolution. Until the 1850s there was no "natural" increase of the population, but this began to change when modern medical treatment was introduced and modern hospitals were established, both by the Ottoman authorities and by the foreign Christian missionaries. The number of births remained steady but infant mortality decreased. This was the main reason for Arab population growth. ... No one would doubt that some migrant workers came to Palestine from Syria and Trans-Jordan and remained there. But one has to add to this that there were migrations in the opposite direction as well. For example, a tradition developed in Hebron to go to study and work in Cairo, with the result that a permanent community of Hebronites had been living in Cairo since the fifteenth century. Trans-Jordan exported unskilled casual labor to Palestine; but before 1948 its civil service attracted a good many educated Palestinian Arabs who did not find work in Palestine itself. Demographically speaking, however, neither movement of population was significant in comparison to the decisive factor of natural increase.
Miss Peters's central thesis is that a substantial immigration of Arabs to Palestine took place during the first half of the twentieth century. She supports this argument with an array of demographic statistics and contemporary accounts, the bulk of which have not been questioned by any reviewer, including Porath.
Porath replied with an array of demographic data to support his position. He also wrote that Peters's demographic statistics were inexplicable:
...nowhere in her main text or in the methodological appendices (V and VI) did Mrs. Peters bother to explain to her readers how she managed to break down the Ottoman or Cuinet's figures into smaller units than subdistricts. As far as I know no figures for the units smaller than subdistricts (Nahia; the parallel of the French commune), covering the area of Ottoman Palestine, were ever published. Therefore I can't avoid the conclusion that Mrs. Peters's figures were, at best, based on guesswork and an extremely tendentious guesswork at that.
According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, as of May 2006, of Israel's 7 million people, 77% were Jews, 18.5% Arabs, and 4.3% "others". Among Jews, 68% were Sabras (Israeli-born), mostly second- or third-generation Israelis, and the rest are olim — 22% from Europe and the Americas, and 10% from Asia and Africa, including the Arab countries.
According to Palestinian evaluations, The West Bank is inhabited by approximately 2.4 million Palestinians and the Gaza Strip by another 1.4 million. According to a study presented at The Sixth Herzliya Conference on The Balance of Israel's National Security there are 1.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank. This study was criticised by demographer Sergio DellaPergola, who estimated 3.33 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip combined at the end of 2005.
According to these Israeli and Palestinian estimates, the population in Israel and the Palestinian Territories stands at 9.8–10.8 million.