Like many issues in the Middle East, population figures can be an explosive subject and nowhere is that more crucial than for Israelis and Palestinians. Recent studies show non-Jews, mainly Palestinians, outnumbering Jews in Israel and the Palestinian territories and predictions are that trend is likely to continue. Demographics was a major underlying reason for Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza this past year and is likely to shape future shifts by Israel as well.
When the bell rings dozens of youngsters pour out into the courtyard for their break. Some run, jump and shout, others, especially the young girls, walk around in small clusters, talking and giggling.
It's a scene played out in schools across much of the globe. But, this is an elementary school in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The children are young Palestinians and they represent perhaps the greatest force that could shape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the years ahead. Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this past year is a perfect illustration.
The issue is demographics. A study published in Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper in August stated that non-Jews outnumber Jews in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. And experts predict the trend is likely to continue.
These assessments are certainly not lost on Palestinians, like chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, who argues that it is in Israel's interest to make a peace deal.
"We do not vanish, we don't intend to vanish. And, today the children who are born in my hometown Jericho, will be in the majority of those between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean," said Mr. Erekat.
The same assessments worry Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has repeatedly spoken of the need to maintain a Jewish majority and the "Jewish character" of the state of Israel.
When former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross came to observe Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, he singled out changing demographics as one of the main reasons for the move.
"Sharon talked about 8,000 Israelis living there among 1.3 million Palestinians," said Mr. Ross. "He talked about the demographics issue."
Mr. Sharon also acknowledged that the cost in money and lives of protecting the Gaza settlers was too high to sustain in a place where Jews had no realistic hope of ever outnumbering Palestinians.
And so, the man who had been one of the staunchest proponents of settlements ordered the dismantling of all 21 enclaves in Gaza and four small, isolated ones in the northern West Bank.
The withdrawal from Gaza helped Israel, says Professor Sergio della Pergola of Jerusalem's Hebrew University. It shifted the population balance in terms of the proportion of Jews in those areas still under Israeli control - Israel proper and the West Bank.
"It means that the point of shift between the Jewish majority and the [to a] Jewish minority has been postponed by 20 years or so," he said.
Just over 50 years ago, in 1948, there were approximately 650,000 Jews and over 1.3 million Arabs living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Today, there are about 5.2 million Jews and 5.4 million Arabs living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These include four million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and 1.4 million Arab citizens in Israel. In addition, there are 185,000 non-Jewish foreign workers and another 290,000 non-Jewish immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union.
And even though the population balance shifted in Israel's favor with the withdrawal from Gaza, the long-term trend remains undeniable, says Professor della Pergola.
"There is a faster population growth among the Arabs and this is due essentially to their higher birthrate. ? As a consequence, the proportion of the Jewish section [portion of the population] is declining," added Professor della Pergola.
According to United Nations figures, the average Palestinian woman in the West Bank and Gaza will have over five children in her lifetime while a woman in Israel will have close to three. Some experts argue that figure would be even lower if it did not include the higher birthrate among Arabs living inside Israel proper.
That trend clearly has Israeli political leaders worried and Professor Della Pergola says that when they talk of maintaining a Jewish and democratic state, what they mean is reducing significantly the proportion of non-Jews within the state.
And such efforts are under way on the ground. Israel continues to build its "security barrier," in and around the West Bank. Once completed, it will include the major Jewish settlement blocs and East Jerusalem on the Israeli side. Jewish population inside the West Bank settlements also continues to increase, however, with the Central Bureau of Statistics estimating a 4.3 percent growth for 2005.
Despite such a growth rate, the over 240,000 Jewish settlers are vastly outnumbered by the over two million Palestinians living elsewhere in the West Bank. And that, says Dennis , will define future shifts.
"You still have certain realities in Israel and over time the fact that Israel, to be a Jewish, democratic state, it won't stay where it is in the West Bank either. Does that mean a total withdrawal? No. But, it means there'll be additional moves by Israel to secure the demographic viability of the state," said Mr. Ross.
Ariel Sharon has repeatedly said that the major Jewish settlement blocs will remain as part of Israel even under a future peace agreement. But, he has also spoken of "painful concessions" to be made, a strong indication that more land will have to be given up and that the smaller settlements will have to go.
Whatever action is eventually taken, the Gaza withdrawal was but a temporary measure to ease the population pressure. Israel's demographics problem has only been postponed, not eliminated.