The Palestinians are Arabs and speak Arabic. How many they are in total – in the Palestinian territories, in Israel and in refugee lives in other countries – is difficult to ascertain.
The question is sensitive because Jews and Arabs partly claim the same land. Many areas on the West Bank and Jerusalem, where Jews have moved in, are expected to give up their own state to the Palestinians. Israel also does not want Palestinian refugees to return; several parties consider that they should instead become citizens of Arab countries.
The word Palestine is derived from Philistine, an old term for a population of the Mediterranean coast found in the Bible. It was not until the early 1900s that the word became commonplace as an Arabic national designation.
In the early 1920s, when Britain ruled the Mediterranean-Jordan area, a census was made. According to it, the population groups were distributed as follows: 78 percent of Muslims, 11 percent of Jews and 9.6 percent of Christians. For over a century, extensive Jewish immigration, waves of Palestinian refugees and some emigration, especially by Christians, have completely changed the composition and settlement of the population. Now the territory is divided: The western part became Israel in 1948, a Jewish state with a Jewish majority population. The eastern part and the Gaza Strip still have Arab majority but unclear legal status. The political process that has been going on since the split has increasingly aimed for areas of Arab majority to form their own state, Palestine.
Palestine includes the Gaza Strip and the land on the West Bank east of the “Green Line”, a 1949 standstill line that served as a border with 1967 when Israel occupied Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
UN map showing the Green Line.
The three areas together have close to 4.8 million Arab residents, of which the West Bank and East Jerusalem have about 2.9 million and the Gaza Strip 1.9 million.
It gives an approximate picture of how many citizens of Palestine a state could have. An entirely different question is how many people consider themselves belonging to the Palestinian people. There are sources of error in official data, both at the UN and in the countries where many Palestinians live.
During the war that broke out when the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948 (see Modern History), over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from the territories that came to belong to Israel. Today, the refugee families encompass several generations, and the number of refugees amounts to over five million according to the UN organization UNRWA. The organization’s total figures include both camp residents in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as well as refugees in neighboring countries (read more in the chapter Refugees).
Jewish settlers are not included in the population above: The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is considered internationally illegal as it has occurred as a result of military occupation. The Fourth Geneva Convention, one of the laws of the war, prohibits an occupation power from moving its own population into an occupied area. According to the Israeli peace movement Peace now, the settlers of the West Bank amount to just over 400,000 people and make up about 14 percent of the population there. According to Israeli human rights organizations, about 200,000 Jews have moved to East Jerusalem.
More than 300,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem. They tend to count in both Israeli and Palestinian population statistics. The Palestinians in East Jerusalem are not immigrants, on the contrary, they constitute the city’s old Arab population. Their share declines as a result of Israel’s handling of East Jerusalem. While Israel has built new neighborhoods for Jews to move in, the Palestinians’ right of residence is made more difficult by, among other things, restrictions on building permits and residence permits. Palestinians in East Jerusalem have the opportunity to apply to become Israeli citizens, but it has been seen as a betrayal from the Palestinian side – as accepting the Israeli occupation. Jerusalem’s Mufti, the supreme Muslim authority, has even issued, and repeated, a religiously-based ban on Israeli citizenship.
Israel has also been reluctant to allow Palestinians to become citizens. In 2016, only nine Palestinians from East Jerusalem got the go-ahead. However, the number of applications has increased in recent years and processing times have been shortened by court criticism. In 2019, nearly 1,200 Palestinians from East Jerusalem received citizenship, according to Haaretz newspaper, the highest number since Israel entered the area.
Without citizenship, Palestinians are not entitled to take part in elections to the Israeli parliament, but in local elections. So far, the majority of Palestinians have boycotted those elections.
Israel has 1.8 million Arab residents, according to state government records – almost as many as the Gaza Strip. It is obvious that many in Israel really see themselves as Palestinians, but how many are unclear as if they would be ready to exchange Israeli citizenship with a Palestinian. Israeli authorities oppose the term Palestinians to people who are Israeli citizens, instead the term Israeli Arabs is used.
Until the 1967 war, the West Bank and East Jerusalem belonged to Jordan, and a large proportion of the population in these areas enjoy Jordanian citizenship. In order to protect their right to live in Jerusalem, some choose to apply for Israeli citizenship.
There are several smaller groups of Christians who have different ethnic backgrounds than Arabs, especially Armenian Christians who have their own quarters in the old city center of Jerusalem. They make up a few thousand people and are usually included among the Palestinians in political contexts.
A special position occupies the Bedouins, most of whom live a marginalized life as livestock keepers in semi-desert areas. According to a study by the UN organization UNDP 2013, there are approximately 40,000 Bedouins in the Palestinian territories. The majority are refugees with backgrounds in the Negev desert in Israel, a state located in Asia continent defined by areacodesexplorer.
Three quarters of Palestinians live in urban environments. Gaza, with over 5000 inhabitants per square kilometer, is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Population growth is high. Nearly 40 percent of Palestinians are under the age of 14. Rapid population growth is increasing the pressure on housing, schools, health care and other resources.
The Palestinians are Arabic-speaking. The emphasis patterns in Palestinian dialect have deviated less from classical Arabic than most other dialects. A striking difference between urban and rural dialects can still be discerned, even though the geographical distances in Palestine are small. The vocabulary shows many loans from languages that the Arabs in Palestine have come into contact with, not least from modern Hebrew in Israel.