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Rise in Palestinian Population May Pressure Israel to End Land Claims

The Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem has grown to 2.89 million, up sharply from just over 2 million in the mid-1990s.

The new figures, announced Thursday, will have repercussions for the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, especially when the two sides begin negotiating issues such as the status of Jerusalem.

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Demographics have been an important element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with liberals in Israel citing the rapid Palestinian population growth as a key reason for arriving quickly at a peace settlement.

A statement by the Palestinian Statistics Bureau said 1.65 million Palestinians live in the West Bank; 1.02 million in Gaza; and 210,000 in East Jerusalem. In addition, some 325,000 Palestinians with residency rights in the West Bank and Gaza have been living abroad for more than a year. If they return, this would bring the total to 3.2 million.

The most recent Israeli figures on the Palestinian population stem from the mid-1990s. At the time, 1.12 million Palestinians lived in the West Bank, 748,000 in the Gaza Strip and 180,000 in east Jerusalem, for a total of just over 2 million.

The head of the statistics bureau, Hassan Abu Libdeh, attributed the sharp increase mainly to systematic underreporting of Palestinian population figures during the years of Israeli occupation. He also noted the high birth rate in the Palestinian areas and said thousands of Palestinians returned from exile after the 1993 autonomy accord with Israel.

In east Jerusalem, census takers were only able to obtain some information because Israeli authorities barred them from operating in the city. Israel has said such activity would undercut Israel's claim to sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.

Israeli legislator Dedi Zucker of the dovish Meretz party said he hoped the census results would help persuade Israeli hard-liners seeking to annex large parts of the West Bank and Gaza "that it is impossible to govern 3 million Palestinians."

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