From Time Immemorial- Natural Increase and the Growth of Palestine’s Arab Population (Part 4 of 6)

by | Apr 19, 2002

Peters’ main contention is that many of the Arabs living in the area that became Israel did not descend from Arabs who had been there “from time immemorial” but were relatively recent arrivals. One indication of this migration, she argues, is that the “natural increase” (i.e., births minus deaths) of the original 1893 population could […]

Peters’ main contention is that many of the Arabs living in the area that became Israel did not descend from Arabs who had been there “from time immemorial” but were relatively recent arrivals. One indication of this migration, she argues, is that the “natural increase” (i.e., births minus deaths) of the original 1893 population could not have accounted for all the Arabs present in pre-state Israel in 1947.

But Peters knows that the accepted view holds Arab population growth to have been the result of natural increase. In a section entitled “Immigration: Government Reports and Their Contradictions [pp. 223-5],” she cites many sources in support of the standard view, including the 1931 British census, various government bodies, and two Zionist historians.1

Peters counters this impressive array of sources with the argument that the official sources contradict themselves and only assume, but do not prove, that natural increase was the source of Arab population growth. She writes: “Occasionally the British administration, noting ‘disproportions’ and disparities in its data on Arab population growth, attempted to justify the conflicting assumptions in nonscientific terms, but the so-called ‘unprecedented’ rate of ‘natural increase’ among the non-Jews was never satisfactorily broken down or explained [p. 223].” Later, she continues: “the evidence which contradicted that assumption often was noted on other pages of the same official British Government report that had made the ‘natural increase’ assumption [p. 224].”

Peters never provides enough details about official figures to show that the claim of natural increase is an “assumption”; this is merely her assertion. At least one of her sources, Carr-Saunders’ World Population, explicitly bases its claims about natural increase on observed birth rates and death rates among the Arabs [Carr-Saunders, p. 308].2 If Carr-Saunders makes some assumption that would mask immigration, Peters does not show it.

What of Peters’ “disproportions” and contradictions? Peters uses the term “disproportion” in reference to the 1937 British report to the League of Nations:

A very great disproportion is evident between the Moslem and Jewish death-rates and has been accentuated by a steady decline in the Jewish death-rate over the period under review. [p. 223, note 14]

But there is nothing contradictory or surprising about a disproportion between Arab and Jewish death rates. Nor does the Muslims’ higher death rate contradict the idea that Arab natural increase was very rapid. The same report indicates that the Muslims have the highest birth rate of all the religions and establishes their high rate of natural increase [pp. 223-224, note 18].

Peters also cites a report that, whereas the Jewish death rate declined between 1922 and 1944, the Arab death rate was at its lowest in 1922: “According to demographic experts, that phenomenon would have been incredible [p. 223, note 11].” Yet the relevant table shows that the Arab death rate decreased steadily between 1923 and 1935.3 Furthermore, the anomalous figure for 1922 clearly has a different statistical basis, as no figure for “others” is cited in the rightmost column. There is nothing nefarious in this inconsistency, and Peters is wrong to make anything of it.

Peters finds another “contradiction” in the work of A.M. Carr-Saunders. She writes:

One source cited earlier–a population expert who assumed that a populous indigenous Arab community had been in Palestine for a millenium–noted elsewhere in the same chapter that, by the date of his book, 1936, well into that Mandatory period, “fall in the death-rate” was the “likely” cause of the Arabs’ population increase. And yet, he contradicted his own explanation by stating that in fact by 1936, fourteen years into the Mandatory period, “Medical and sanitary progress has made little headway among the Palestinian Arabs as yet, and cannot account for any considerable fall in the death rate.” After disqualifying all other excuses, that writer was left with one rather lame possibility: that perhaps the phenomenal rate of increase among Arabs in Palestine could be attributed solely to British “administrative measures” like “quarantine”!

In other words, the new “phenomenal” rise in the Arab population of Palestine, which had remained sparse and static for two hundred years despite constant replenishing, was attributed to a sudden, hyped natural increase of the “existing” long-settled indigenes. That phenomenon, or so went the rationalization, resulted from new conditions. Yet, it was also acknowledged that because of its recent timing, the introduction of those new conditions could not in fact have been responsible for the population increase in the period of time for which it was credited! [p. 224]

But consider what Carr-Saunders had actually written:

Medical and sanitary progress, so far as it affects the personal health and customs, has made little way among the Palestinian Arabs as yet, and cannot account for any considerable fall in the death rate. But general administrative measures, in the region of quarantine, for example, have been designed in the light of modern knowledge and have been adequately carried out. Measures of this kind can be enforced almost overnight… Therefore we can find in these administrative changes, brought about by the British occupation of Palestine, what is in any case a tenable explanation of the natural increase of population among the Arabs. [Carr-Saunders, pp. 310-311]

Peters’ quote omits Carr-Saunders’ crucial phrase “so far as it affects the personal health and customs” without even an ellipsis. The alleged contradiction is entirely of her own manufacture: Carr-Saunders does not claim that new conditions could not have explained the Arab population increase, merely that new conditions affecting personal health and customs could not have done so. He explains the population increase in terms of new conditions such as quarantine. Peters simply dismisses this explanation as an “excuse” and a “lame possibility” which in the next paragraph becomes a “rationalization.” She clearly wants to believe that Carr-Saunders has invented this explanation out of a desire to evade the possibility that Arab population increase resulted largely from immigration, but offers no evidence to support this attitude.

The last “contradiction” Peters finds is in the report of the 1938 Palestine Partition Commission, cited above, “which tried to reconcile contradictory facts”; i.e., the high birth rate of a peasant community and a death rate that “could only be brought about under an enlightened modern administration [p. 224].” But there is nothing necessarily contradictory in a population exhibiting these two tendencies, nor does Peters explain further. She merely points without comment to the report’s claims that these circumstances were “unique in modern history” and “possibly unprecedented [p. 225].”

The thesis that high Arab population growth came from hidden immigration rather than natural increase is not original to Peters; it was explicitly considered and rejected during the Mandatory period. According to the Anglo-American Survey of Palestine:

That each [temporary migration into Palestine] may lead to a residue of illegal permanent settlers is possible, but, if the residue were of significant size, it would be reflected in systematic disturbances of the rates of Arab vital occurrences. No such systematic disturbances are observed. It is sometimes alleged that the high rate of Arab natural increase is due to a large concealed immigration from the neighbouring countries. This is an erroneous inference. Researches reveal that the high rate of fertility of the Moslem Arab woman has remained unchanged for half a century. The low rate of Arab natural increase before 1914 was caused by

(a) the removal in significant numbers of men in the early nubile years for military service in other parts of the Ottoman Empire, many of whom never returned and others of whom returned in the late years of life; and

(b) the lack of effective control of endemic and epidemic diseases that in those years led to high mortality rates. [Survey, p. 211]4

All Peters has to offer in dispute of such findings is a series of invented contradictions in the official British sources. As will be seen in the next section, her allegations of massive undocumented immigration rest on similar distortions and misinterpretations.


Peters’ method for dealing with inconvenient evidence is becoming clear: she tries to discredit the source by inventing inconsistencies while insinuating dishonesty. The standard view that rapid Arab population growth resulted from natural increase stands is an obstacle to Peters’ thesis of massive Arab immigration. Thus, we see her

  • argue without ground that official reports “assume” that high Arab population growth resulted from natural increase
  • insinuate baselessly that a “disproportion” between Jewish and Muslim death rates in a British report is a sign of “conflicting assumptions”
  • find another “contradiction” in an obvious change in statistical reporting methods
  • omit a crucial qualifying phrase in a quotation in order to create the appearance of self-contradiction
  • dismiss without evidence (but with plenty of scorn) an expert’s assessment that public health measures had accounted for rapid Arab population growth
  • insinuate groundlessly that the official sources evaded the possibility of Arab immigration
  • imagine a contradiction in a report’s claim of high birth rates accompanying lowered death rates

What Peters does not do is offer any valid evidence that birth and death data were misreported, or show why evidence of immigration did not appear in Arab vital statistics. Instead, she modifies or misinterprets evidence to fit her thesis.



1 She cites:

  • The British census of 1931 as saying that “not quite two percent of the Moslem population are immigrants [p. 222, note 7].”
  • The Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry as remarking on the expansion of the Arab population by natural increase and the remarkable “speed with which the Moslems have followed Western patterns in the reduction of mortality [p. 223, p. 224, notes 8,9, 20].”
  • The Palestine Royal Commission Report as calling the rate of natural increase among the Muslims “unprecedented” and as crediting the fact to the higher health standards brought by Jews [p. 223, notes 13, 10]. Later, the report raises the possibility of immigration as accounting for some of the population increase: “No accurate estimate can be made of the numbers of Arabs who have come into Palestine from neighboring Arab lands and settled there, but it may be reckoned that roughly nine-tenths of growth has been due to natural increase… [p. 225, note 26].”
  • The 1937 British report to the League of Nations claiming that the Muslim birth rate is the highest of all the religions and that “the growth in their numbers has been largely due to the health services, combating malaria, reducing the infant deathrate, improving water supply and sanitation.” Further, the report sets the Moslem rate of natural increase at 2.5 per cent per year between 1931 and 1935 [pp. 223-224, note 18].
  • Zionist historian Rony Gabbay: “The increase in the Moslem and Christian populations is to be attributed mostly to their higher rate of natural increase, due not only to the very high birth rate, but also to the fall in the death rate of infants, as well as a considerable increase in the life span… [p. 513, note 19].”
  • Zionist historian A. Granovsky: “The rate of natural increase of the Arab population of Palestine is… among the highest in the world, in fact [p. 513, note 19].”
  • Population expert A.M. Carr-Saunders as claiming that the “fall in the death rate” was the “likely” cause of the Arabs’ population increase [p. 224, note 21]. Later, Carr-Saunders is quoted saying that “the Arabs have also received some reinforcement” from immigration [p. 225, note 27].
  • The 1938 Palestine Partition Commission (relying on Carr-Saunders) claiming that the Arab population reflected “simultaneously two widely different tendencies–a birthrate characteristic of a peasant community in which the unrestricted family is normal, and a death-rate which could only be brought about under an enlightened modern administration… [p. 224, note 22].” Among the Arabs this led to “an abnormally high (and possibly unprecedented) rate of natural increase in the existing indigenous population [p. 225, note 24].”

2 A.M. Carr-Saunders, World Population (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), p. 308.

3 Statistical Abstract of Palestine (Jerusalem: Office of Statistics), 1936 p. 17, table 18.

4 Peters is surely aware of this reference, as it occurs one paragraph after a passage she cites [p. 517 note 49] and is clearly relevant to it.

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Paul Blair is former editor of The Intellectual Activist.

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