14 Nov
  • By Sergio della Pergola

Israel and Palestine: Population Trends 2017

Sergio DellaPergola
Professor of Demography
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Since the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Israel is the country with the largest Jewish population in the world. It is also the only one displaying a substantial rate of growth—1.84% in 2016. With an average of 3.13 children currently born per Jewish woman, as of 2015, and a relatively young age composition (27.1% under age 15 and only 12.9% age 65 and over as of 2015), Israel’s Jewish population is nearly the only one displaying above-replacement fertility and a balanced age composition. A moderately positive international migration balance helps to keep Israel’s Jewish population increasing.

At the beginning of 2017, Israel’s Jewish population reached 6,451,000. The Jewish population combined together with 384,500 “Others”—non-Jewish members of households who immigrated under the Law of Return or were born in Israel—formed an enlarged Jewish population of 6,835,500 in 2017, of which these “Others” constituted 5.6% (Israel Central Bureau of Statistics).

For the past several years, the main component of Jewish population growth in Israel was the natural increase resulting from a prevalence of births over deaths. In 2016, 134,100 Jewish births—the highest ever in Israel’s history—and 37,066 Jewish deaths—not the highest ever—produced a net natural increase of 100,034 Jews—again the highest ever. Israel’s current Jewish fertility rate increased slightly to 3.13 children per woman, higher than in any other developed country and twice or more the current average of Jewish children among women in most Diaspora Jewish communities (sometimes called the effective Jewish fertility rate). This reflected not only the large family size of the more religious Jewish population component, but also significantly a diffused desire for children among the moderately traditional and secular, especially among the upwardly mobile.


In 2015, 24,100 Jewish new immigrants and immigrant citizens (Israeli citizens born abroad who entered the country for the first time) arrived in Israel. The net balance of these minus the balance of Israelis leaving the country and Israelis returning to the country after a prolonged stay abroad was 19,100. Therefore, an estimated 5,000 Jews joined the number of those who permanently or in the long term reside abroad. Looking at the broader picture, including non-Jews, there were 34,800 new immigrants and immigrant citizens. The net migration balance was 33,100; therefore the missing number was only 700, indicating that among Arabs who constitute the vast majority of non-Jews the propensity to emigrate was lower than among Jews. These data about Israel’s international migration balance point to a steady if moderate level of immigration in comparison to other historical periods, but also to quite low levels of emigration. Estimates of total emigration from Israel, including Jews and non-Jews, have ranged historically from less than 5,000 to 15,000 annually. In 2016, the total number of new immigrants diminished slightly to 25,010 from 27,850 the previous year. The number of converts to Judaism remained only a tiny percentage of the non-Jewish members of Jewish households in Israel, especially among recent immigrants. In 2014, the net balance of conversions to and from Judaism was 2,500. Overall, between 1999 and 2014, nearly 83,200 persons were converted to Judaism by Rabbinical Conversion Courts, some of whom were not permanent Israeli residents.

Supporters of the far right Bayit Yehudi party headed by Naftali Bennett celebrate at the party's headquarters in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv January 22, 2013. Hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged the bruised winner of Israel's election on Tuesday, claiming victory despite unexpected losses to resurgent centre-left challengers. Netanyahu has traditionally looked to religious, conservative parties for backing and is widely expected to seek out self-made millionaire Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party and stole much of the limelight during the campaign. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR3CTCY

Turning now to the territorial aggregate of the State of Israel and of the Palestinian Authority, Table 1 reports numbers of Jews, “Others”, Arabs, and foreign workers, undocumented tourists, and refugees. Each group’s total is shown for different territorial divisions: the State of Israel within the pre-1967 borders, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Gaza. The percentage of Jews (by the enlarged definition including “others”) in each division is also shown. At the beginning of 2017, of the 6,451,000 core Jews, 5,821,000 lived within Israel’s pre-1967 borders; 215,200 lived in neighborhoods of East Jerusalem incorporated after 1967; 21,500 on the Golan Heights; and 393,300 lived in the West Bank. Jews represented 74.7% of Israel’s total legal population of 8,631,900, which included 1,796,400 Arabs (inclusive of Christians and Druze), but excluded 233,800 foreign workers, undocumented tourists, and refugees (Israel Central Bureau of Statistics). The latter group comprised 84,500 legal foreign workers, 15,700 undocumented foreign workers, 78,500 tourists whose visas had expired, 14,800 refuge seekers, and 40,300 illegal entrants (Israel Population and Migration Authority). Israel’s Jewish population of 6,835,500, including “others”, represented 79.2% of the State’s total legal population. Israel’s Arab population, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, comprised 20.8% of the total legal population. As shown in Table 1, Jews and “others” represented 78.7% of total residents within pre-1967 borders (including foreign workers and refugees), 40.2% in East Jerusalem, 47.7% in the Golan Heights, and 13.8% of the West Bank’s total population. Since 2005, no Jewish population remains in Gaza.

Table 1. Jewish population, Arab population, foreign workers and refugees in Israel and Palestinian Territory by territorial divisions, 1/1/2017(a)

Area Jewish


Others Jewish and others (b) Arab population

and others

Foreign workers, undocum., refugees(c) Total Percent of Jews and others(d)
Grand total 6,451,000 384,500 6,835,500 6,088,200 233,800 13,157,500 52.0
State of Israele 6,451,000 384,500 6,835,500 1,796,400 233,800 8,865,700 77.1
Pre-1967 borders 5,821,000 366,400 6,187,400 1,439,100 233,800 7,860,300 78.7
East Jerusalemf 215,200 8,100 223,300 332,000 555,300 40.2
Golan Heights 21,500 1,600 23,100 25,300 48,400 47.7
West Bank 393,300 8,400 401,700 g 401,700 13.8h
Palestinian Territory       4,291,800   4,291,800
West Bank i i i 2,502,700 2,502,700 [13.8]h
Gaza 0 0 0 1,789,100 1,789,100 0.0

(a) Rounded figures. b Enlarged Jewish population
(c) All foreign workers, undocumented residents and refugees were allocated to Israel within pre-1967 borders. Source: Israel Population and Migration Authority (2016)
(d) Column 3 divided by column 6. e As defined by Israel’s legal system.
(f )Estimated from Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies (2017). g Included under Palestinian Territory.
(h) Percent of Jews and others out of total population in the West Bank under Israeli or Palestinian Authority jurisdiction. i Included under State of Israel

Source: Israel Central Bureau of Statistics; Israel Population and Migration Authority; PCBS Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics; and author’s estimates

Regarding the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza (WBG), in November 2007 the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) undertook a new Census which enumerated 3,767,000 persons in WBG, including 225,000 in East Jerusalem—clearly an undercount because of the PCBS’s limited access to the city. The new Census total, not unexpectedly, was more than 300,000 lower than the PCBS’s own pre-census estimate for the same year. Our own independent assessment for the end of 2007, after subtracting East Jerusalem (already included in the Israeli total), accounting for a negative net migration balance of Palestinians, and some further corrections, was about 3,500,000. By our estimates, between a previous census in 1997 and 2007 the yearly average population increase among Palestinians in WBG (not including East Jerusalem) was 2.91%. This exactly matched the 2.91% yearly growth rate for Arabs in Israel over the same period. In subsequent years, the growth rate of Israel’s total Arab population slowly declined to 2.20% in 2016, as against 1.84% for the Jewish population with immigration and 1.58% without immigration. The Palestinian population’s growth rate in WBG was probably decreasing as well, among other things because of some net emigration. According to Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF) Civilian Administration in Judea and Samaria (2016), the balance between recorded births and deaths of Palestinians in the West Bank resulted in a growth rate of 2.57%. But because of net emigration we assume here a rate of growth of 2.20%, similar to that of Muslims in Israel whose demographic characteristics are quite similar to those in the Palestinian Territory. Probably both fertility and mortality are somewhat higher in the Palestinian Territory than in Israel and significantly higher than among the Jewish population. Our adjusted population estimates for WBG at the beginning of 2017 is 4,291,800, of whom 2,502,700 live in the West Bank and 1,789,100 in Gaza. These figures are lower than some other independent evaluations. The IDF Civilian Administration in Judea and Samaria estimates the number of registered Palestinians in the West Bank at 2,919,350 at the beginning of 2016 (as noted, most likely an overestimate once considering emigration). The PCBS estimates for mid-2016 were 2,935,368 for the West Bank (of which 426,533 live in the Jerusalem Governorate – city and suburbs) and 1,881,982 for Gaza. A total of 4,816,503 thus obtains for WBG. The UN estimated the WBG total population at 4,668,000, including over 300,000 in the city of Jerusalem (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division). The Population Reference Bureau 2015 estimate was not far off: 4.5 million excluding Jerusalem. Our own estimate for WBG without Jerusalem, as noted, is 4,291,800. The difference versus PCBS reflects their initial Census overestimate inclusive of persons, students and others, who actually resided abroad for more than one year, and their assumed growth rates that ignore the reducing impact of emigration. Other much lower estimates of WBG population sometimes circulated by publicists and politicians reflect an ideological stance favorable to maintaining the Israeli presence in the Palestinian territories rather than ascertained demographic criteria, and should be dismissed as unreliable.


The Arab population of East Jerusalem, which we have included in Israel’s population count, was assessed at 332,000 at the beginning of 2017, and constituted 37% of Jerusalem’s total population of 882,000. By summing the 1,796,400 Arab population of Israel, including East Jerusalem, and the 4,291,800 estimated Palestinians in WBG, a total of 6,088,200 Arabs obtains for the whole territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, versus a total enlarged Jewish population of 6,835,500.

Table 2 reports the percentage of Jews, according to the core and enlarged definitions, out of the total population of the combined territory of Israel and Palestine. The existence and size of a Jewish population majority is conditional upon the definition of who is a Jew and the territorial boundaries chosen for assessment. Relative to this territorial grand total, we demonstrate the potential effect on population composition of gradually and cumulatively subtracting from the initial maximum possible extent the Arab population of designated areas as well as the foreign workers and refugees. The result is gradual growth of the potential Jewish share of a total population which declines according to the diminishing territorial and population configurations considered.

Table 2. Percent of core and enlarged Jewish population in Israel and Palestinian Territory, according to different territorial definitions, 1/1/2017

Area Percentage of Jews(a) by definition
Jews Jews and others
Grand total of Israel and Palestinian Territory 49.0 52.0
Minus foreign workers and refugees 49.9 52.9
Minus Gaza 57.9 61.4
Minus Golan Heights 58.1 61.5
Minus West Bank 75.0 79.4
Minus East Jerusalem 78.0 82.6

(a) Total Jewish population of Israel, including East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. In each row, Arabs and others of mentioned area are deducted and the percentages are recalculated accordingly. Source: Table1.

A total combined Jewish, Arab, and other population of 13,157,500, including foreign workers, undocumented tourists and refugees, lived in Israel and the Palestinian Territory (WBG) at the beginning of 2017. The Jewish population of 6,451,000 represented 49.0% of this total between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, of which the State of Israel is part and parcel. Thus, by a rigorous rabbinic definition of who is a Jew, the extant Jewish majority not only is constantly decreasing but actually does not exist any longer among the broader aggregate of people currently found over the whole territory between the Sea and the River. If the 384,500 “other” members of Jewish households are added to the Jewish population, the enlarged Jewish population of 6,835,500 represented 52.0% of the total population living legally or illegally in Israel and the Palestinian Territory—a tiny majority. If we subtract from the grand total, the 233,800 foreign workers, undocumented tourists and refugees, the Jewish and enlarged populations rise to, respectively, 49.9% and 52.9% of the total population resident in Israel and the Palestinian Territory estimated at 12,923,700 in 2017. After subtracting the population of Gaza, the total percentages of Jews rise to 57.9% core and 61.4% enlarged; after subtracting the Druze population of the Golan Heights the percentages become, 58.1% and 61.5%, respectively; they become 75.0% and 79.4%, respectively, if subtracting the Palestinian population of the West Bank; and rise to 78.0% and 82.6% if also subtracting the Arab population of East Jerusalem.


The question of which political borders will eventually exist between Israel and Palestine is political and must be adjudicated by the appropriate representative institutions of both parties. The solutions to these issues cannot ignore the trends and implications of demography.

Source: The American Jewish Year Book 2017.