"Build ye houses, and dwell therein;
and plant gardens, and eat their

Jeremiah XXIX:5


Demographic Trends

Israel has followed an unique and extraordinary path of demographic evolution during the four and a half decades since independence. As shown on the immigration graph (Figure 1), geopolitical developments worldwide have caused a steady but variable influx of Jewish immigrants to Israel, peaking in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and rising sharply in the late 1980s. Before the establishment of the State, and in the years immediately following, immigration was principally from Europe. Then, in the 1950s, a tide of North African and Middle Eastern immigrants put Jews of European origin for the very first time in the minority among immigrants (Figure 2). Until the late 1980s immigration declined steadily, and was in some years even exceeded by emigration.

As Figure 1 demonstrates, this declining trend was reversed dramatically as Jews began arriving from the former communist bloc of Eastern and Central Europe. Between 1989 and 1991 the number of these refugees reached 400,000, increasing the Israeli population by 10%. It is anticipated that the flow of immigrants will decrease considerably by the mid-1990s.

Forecasts are complicated by the heterogeneous nature of the population. In most groups, natural growth rates are diminishing, with the exception of the religiously observant populations. The birth rate in secular families is higher than that of other developed countries, but is slowing.

Immigration combined with natural growth means that, from today’s population of about 5 million, Israel could grow to double, or 10 million people by the year 2030. This doubling of population must perforce be accompanied by an increased burden on all resources, especially water. Thus the environmental impact of Israel’s current population trends will be significant.

Population Distribution

The three largest cities in Israel are Jerusalem (524,000 inhabitants), Tel Aviv (340,000, with a metropolitan area of 1.78 million inhabitants), and Haifa (246,000). These three cities and their metropolitan areas house 56% of Israel’s population. Cities of up to 200,000 inhabitants account for 32% of the country’s population. Rural settlements account for only 9.5%, down from 15% in the early ’60s. Until now, the number and size of rural settlements has not diminished; but they have grown at a rate slower than that of the urban centers. New agricultural settlements are not expected to be built, and some rural settlements near the metropolitan areas will become urbanized.

By the 1980s, non-agricultural rural villages were springing up. No longer dependent on the availability of arable land, these communal settlements chose the hillsides and mountaintops of the Galilee. Some residents of these settlements commute daily to work in the nearest cities, while others have developed small agricultural and industrial occupations such as the cultivation of herbs, organic agriculture, and tourism. Today, 109 such settlements exist; although they account for only 0.6% of the population, the environmental implications of their location in sensitive, heretofore unpopulated areas, may have great significance.

Efforts have been made by the Israeli government throughout the State’s existence to encourage a balanced distribution of the population. In an effort to populate peripheral areas, especially in the Negev and Galilee, development towns were established in the 1950s and ’60s and attracted, for the most part, new immigrants. However, these efforts have met with only partial success. While average population density is over 210 km2, most of Israel’s population remains concentrated along the coastal plain. In the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, where growth has been greatest, population density exceeds 1,000 per square kilometer (population trends in Tel Aviv are shown in Figures 3 and 4). This figure is likely to double in the next decades. By contrast, population growth in the development towns has virtually ground to a halt. Market forces continue to oppose the government’s efforts to draw population away from the most crowded urban centers. Recently, the government has limited its intervention to redistribution only where it can be coordinated with employment targets. This high- density, increased urbanization exacerbates environmental problems by usurping fertile agricultural land, swelling runoff and subsequent loss of recharge to the coastal aquifer, increasing groundwater and air pollution, and aggravating traffic congestion.