- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2002

BEACH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip Twenty years ago, Khalil Jabar Kaunan never thought about how many children he would raise. God's will would prevail, not politics, economics or even his or his wife's wishes.

"We were happily married," he said. "Every year, we had a baby and suddenly we had this number" six daughters and five sons, ages 4 to 20.

But at 47, the construction worker finds himself jobless and spending much of his time worrying about how to feed the children when there's no food in the refrigerator, how to keep them warm without enough blankets to go around. He has given up on educating his daughters; he says he can't afford the school supplies.

To talk about it is humiliating, he said, breaking down in tears.

What is a heartache for Mr. Kaunan and many other families in cramped Gaza refugee camps, where six children is just average, is a social and potentially political problem for the Palestinian state-in-waiting.

Palestinian officials, well aware that the state they seek will be poor and crowded, have tried since 1994 to alter the traditional, religious and political beliefs that lead to large families. Those efforts, they say, have taken a blow during more than 15 months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Israel, too, has a fast-growing population, a subject of considerable debate and political implications. The demographic reality that Jewish immigration and birthrates combined can't keep pace with the Palestinians has convinced many Israeli scholars and politicians that "separation" getting rid of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with or without a peace treaty is the only way to preserve a Jewish state on any of the land.

By 2020, Israeli demographers say, the population of Israel and the Palestinian areas together will grow from 9.7 million to 15.2 million with Arabs outnumbering Jews by 8.8 million to 6.4 million.

In Israel proper, Jews are more than 80 percent of the population. But add in the West Bank and Gaza, and the figure falls to 51 percent. In 20 years it will drop to 42 percent at most, according to a report by Haifa University researchers Arnon Soffer and Arnit Cohen Seffer.

The Israeli Jewish population rise of 1 percent a year is twice that of other developed nations, driven by 3.5 percent annual growth in the ultra-Orthodox community, the study said. An ultra-Orthodox community that more than triples by 2020 from 280,000 people in the mid-'90s to approximately 1 million will be costly and could vastly change the secular foundations of Israeli society.

Their growth is "a very real concern, because it endangers the Western liberal characteristics of Israeli society," said lawmaker Joseph Lapid, whose Shinui party opposes religious involvement in government and politics.

The statistics come alive on both sides of the divide in the narrow streets of Gaza refugee camps, swarming with children shooed out of cramped houses to play, and in aisles gridlocked by baby strollers in a Jerusalem supermarket catering to the ultra-Orthodox.

Then there are Israel's own Arab citizens, growing about as fast as the ultra-Orthodox a troubling factor for some Israelis, who suspect their loyalties lie with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

These Arabs, now nearly one-fifth of the Israeli population, long have complained of discrimination.

"I think it is a cause of concern if this population will be estranged from the state and will identify with the Palestinian population," said Efraim Inbar, a Bar-Ilan University political science professor who advocates separation based on demographics.

"It's Israel's duty, for our own good, to try to make this population as sensible and law-abiding as possible."

In Palestinian areas, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimates growth of 4.6 percent in 2001, arousing worries that the weak economy and scarce water supply will collapse under the strain.

"They are afraid of us, and we are afraid of them for the same reason, but there should be a mutual understanding to limit the numbers for both," said Dr. Marwan el-Za'eem, the Palestinian Health Ministry spokesman in the Gaza Strip. "We have limited resources, and if something isn't done, we will have a big disaster."

An important reason for the collapse of peace talks was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's demand that Israel recognize the right of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees to reclaim their homes in the Jewish state. Israel saw itself being demographically swamped.

Demographics has been a tool used by both sides throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Primarily through immigration, the Jewish population grew from about 600,000 when the state was created 53 years ago to more than 5 million today. Jews still are coming, but the tide has ebbed since nearly 1 million Russians immigrated to Israel in the 1990s.

Pushed by powerful religious politicians, the state has passed legislation to support large families by paying them $200 a month for their fifth child and each thereafter.

Mr. Lapid, the Shinui politician, complains that the ultra-Orthodox Israelis devote themselves to religious study, not jobs, leaving wage-earners to support them through taxes.

"The ultra-Orthodox don't recognize the state of Israel, don't cooperate with the authorities, don't go to the army, don't work and don't pay taxes," Mr. Lapid said.

The large-family aid package costs the state about $110 million a year, and Israel can afford it, said Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, leader of United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party.

Besides, having children isn't a political or economic issue, said Rabbi Ravitz, 55, the father of 12. "We don't count our children, and we don't call it even a demographic problem," he said. "It's a sin to look on children as something that solves problems or makes problems."

Among Palestinians during their 1987-93 uprising, it was considered a duty to bear children to fight Israeli occupation.

"There was a political philosophy that said once we become a majority in this area, we could put pressure on the Israeli side," said Dr. el-Za'eem of the Palestinian Health Ministry. "But this philosophy was not right because everything you achieve depends on a good quality of living."

So when the Palestinian Authority took charge, it began advocating quality over quantity.

It enlisted the help of clerics to reassure people that family planning does not conflict with religion; it taught women to use contraceptives and organized meetings to enlist the support of men.

Palestinian health workers say they made substantial progress in getting the message out.

But since the violence was renewed in September 2000, anguished mothers have again been heard vowing after a son's death to replace him with another to fight on.

Dr. Dina Abu Sha'ban, who oversees women's health and family planning for the Palestinian Health Ministry, said the birth rate in Gaza dropped from 6.8 percent in 1998 to 5.9 percent by 2000. Now, it will rise again, she predicted.

"The father cannot get money for his children. The political situation, the closure what to do? The easiest thing he can do is only to produce children," Dr. Abu Sha'ban said.

Having made what they believe was a generous offer of land and statehood and been rebuffed violently, many Israelis have lost faith in peacemaking. Because of the demographics, "we are now obliged to go to a unilateral separation," said Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker with Israel's Likud party.

On the Palestinian side, Camelia al-Khatib, a 28-year-old from Beach refugee camp, says that while children are a gift from God, having more won't help Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

"Education is our only weapon to achieve our dreams and make us strong and more determined to achieve our goals," she said, cradling her youngest, 1-year-old Saeed, in her arms.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide