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|Birthrates alarm Israel|
|04/23/02 at 20:10:32|
Some Palestinians see population boom as best weapon
By Tom Hundley
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published April 21, 2002
SHUAFAT REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank -- Married at 15, she gave birth to her first child less than a year later. Six months ago, she gave birth to her eighth. Fatima Shaher, a 31-year-old Palestinian with dark eyes and an easy smile, loves children. She said she expects to have more.
In recent weeks, Israel has been unnerved by a ferocious wave of suicide bombings that has turned the simple act of boarding a city bus or eating in a crowded restaurant into an existential calculation. But some Israelis say that ticking beneath the surface of the violent confrontation between Arab and Jew is a silent bomb, a demographic bomb.
Shaher and other Palestinian women are producing babies at one of the highest rates in the world. While Israelis are alarmed by the trend, Palestinians have mixed views. Some see it as their ultimate weapon; Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat once referred to Palestinian mothers as his "biological bomb." Others see the explosive birthrate as a catastrophe that will keep the Palestinians mired in poverty and despair.
Among Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the annual birthrate is 40 for every 1,000 people; among Palestinians living in Israel, it drops slightly, to 36 per 1,000. The birthrate among Jews across the region is 18.3 per 1,000--high by European standards but less than half that of the Palestinians.
At the moment, the population--Israel and the Palestinian territories--is roughly balanced between Arabs and Jews. But as the competition intensifies for scarce living space and water resources, the Palestinians are on the brink of a population explosion that would swamp the Jewish populace in less than a generation.
Area is already crowded
The dry, narrow strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea already is overcrowded with 9.7 million people. Arnon Sofer, a demographer at Israel's Haifa University, predicted last year that by 2020 the number of people living on the land will swell to 15.2 million, 58 percent of them non-Jews.
A UN study predicts that by 2050, the population in the West Bank and Gaza will almost quadruple, to nearly 12 million.
Pointing to these numbers, Israeli leftists argue that the creation of a Palestinian state is the only way to guarantee the "Jewishness" of the Jewish state.
On the Israeli right, the numbers have generated discussion of cruder measures. Among them: large transfers of Palestinians to neighboring Arab states, sufficiently crippling the instruments of Palestinian self-rule so that it poses no threat to Jewish domination, or imposing a "Chinese rule" that strictly limits the number of children Palestinian couples may have.
Many Palestinian politicians, on the other hand, are heartened by the statistics, believing that if they just hang tough, time is on their side. As the crisis worsens in the occupied territories, the Palestinians, especially men, cling to this straw.
"When we used to have land, we had many children to help with the work. Now we are having many children to help us recover our land," said Muhammad Nofal, 45, an unemployed driver who has seven children. He and his family live in the Shuafat refugee camp, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
"I have six sons, three for the struggle and three for me," he said, echoing the words of Arafat, who famously told Palestinian women to have 12 children: "Give 10 to Palestine and keep two for yourself."
In a culture where sons are prized above all else, some believe the escalating political violence encourages families to have extra children as a kind of insurance policy.
"Your sons go off to school, and you are afraid they won't come back," said Hassan Shaher, the father of Fatima's eight children. "I don't want to have only one son who might be killed by the Israelis or might be taken off to jail for 20 years."
Even among the Palestinian middle and upper classes, which tend to have smaller families, that kind of logic is not uncommon.
"Many people are thinking, `If my son could be killed, I'd rather have two instead of just one,'"said Khalid Nabris, a Palestinian academic from Jerusalem. "Personally, I don't think this way--I have one son and three daughters and I live in a relatively safe area--but I can understand people who do."
Hospital sees trends
The Red Crescent Maternity Hospital in East Jerusalem is a tranquil island of normalcy amid turmoil. In its cheerful rooms, newborns doze in their mothers' embrace.
"It's not a big hospital--only 26 beds--but it does a lot of work. We have about 290 deliveries a month," said Dr. Yousef Shabany, head of the medical staff.
Six years ago, 1,641 babies were born in the hospital. This year the number is expected to approach 3,500. The increase is even more remarkable in light of the fact that Israeli authorities have cut off East Jerusalem from much of the West Bank, eliminating a large chunk of the hospital's service area.
During the first intifada in the late 1980s, Shabany noticed a trend that surprised him.
"Before the first intifada we used to do five to seven tubal ligations a month. Then it stopped completely," he said. It seemed that women did not want to risk an operation that would preclude future pregnancies at a time when the political conflict was claiming the lives of many youngsters, he said.
He also noticed a steep decline in contraceptive use by women.
Despite Arafat's exhortations for Palestinian women to produce more babies, Shabany and many other Palestinians, from economists to social workers, suggest that an explosive, Third World birthrate is not really an ideal nation-building tool.
"It's a popular message, but this is not a political policy," said Arafat Hidmi, director of the Palestinian Family Planning and Protection Association. He noted that the Palestinian Authority, despite Arafat's rhetoric, officially supported family planning.
"Our approach is . . . that it is better to have a healthy mother, a healthy child and a father who can pay for his children's support and education," Hidmi said.
In the Shuafat refugee camp, which the United Nations administers, a family-planning program was introduced five years ago. Nemed Hamad, a nurse who runs the program, said large families still are the norm in the camp but that more women are starting to use contraceptives, if only to space out their pregnancies.
"For every pregnant woman who comes to the clinic for prenatal care, we have four who are coming for contraceptives," she said. The contraceptives, she added, are free.
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