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There’s No Agreement On The Number Of Palestinians

On Wednesday, the Vatican formalized its recognition of a Palestinian state in a new treaty dealing with the Catholic Church’s land holdings in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The document refers to “the state of Palestine” rather than the Palestine Liberation Organization, the term used in previous drafts of the treaty.

But how many Palestinians actually live in the state recognized by Pope Francis? Coming up with a reliable number can be a contentious process.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, an arm of the Palestinian Authority, recently estimated that as of mid-2015, there were 4.7 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In 2014, the bureau estimated that there were more Palestinians living outside those territories, specifically 5.3 million in Arab countries, 1.5 million in Israel, and 700,000 elsewhere in the world.

The bureau also estimated in 2011 that based on population trends, the number of Palestinians living in what it calls “historical Palestine” (Israel and the Palestinian territories) would reach 7.2 million by 2020, compared with 6.8 million Jews.

Some Israeli estimates, however, differ from the Palestinian figures. One 2006 research paper issued by Bar-Ilan University said that the Palestinian statistics bureau routinely overestimates the size of the Palestinian population and its birth rate and said that the bureau’s 2004 estimate of 3.83 million was too big by 1.34 million people.

The argument over these numbers is a serious one because it underlies a long-running debate over what kind of a democracy Israel will be if the majority of people living there and in the territories are Palestinians who do not have the right to vote. Israeli politicians, academics and media have closely followed population projections, warning that the Arab population may soon outnumber the Jewish one. (In 2007, Ehud Olmert, then the Israeli prime minister, described a “demographic battle, drowned in blood and tears.”) If that demographic tipping point were reached, it could add legitimacy to Palestinian claims for statehood, which is one reason that the bureau’s numbers have been challenged in Israel.

The only other available statistics about the Palestinian population come from the United Nations, which has issued estimates quite similar to those provided by the Palestinian statistics bureau. In 2012, the U.N. estimated that the population within Palestine numbered 4.2 million. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists those who lived in Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 “who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict,” estimates that there are 5 million Palestinian refugees eligible for their help.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.