Palestinians launch first census in a decade

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NABLUS, West Bank, Oct 17 (Reuters) Palestinians launched their first census in a decade today, visiting thousands of homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the hope of boosting their bid for an independent state.

About 1,000 officials spread out across towns in Palestinian territories, drawing blue and red numbers on homes and offices ahead of a head count in December. The colourful markings will be used later to help count communities more easily.

Palestinian officials hope the first census since 1997 will lay the ground for a future independent state and bolster their position in peace talks with Israel.

''I'm sure this census will help us in our negotiations,'' Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said. ''We speak about institution building for an independent state, and this is a basic ingredient.'' Palestinians say the census will help them develop a governing strategy and give them specific data to outline needs in terms of schools, hospitals, roads and other services. They also say it can boost their case for territorial demands in negotiations with Israel.

Demographics is a thorny subject for the Jewish state.

Israel's concern that Palestinians could eventually outnumber Jews if Israel kept control of all the territory it captured in the 1967 West Asia war was part of the thinking behind its decision to pull out of Gaza in 2005.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has cited such demographic concerns in advocating West Bank withdrawals under a future peace deal.

Some 5.4 million Jews live in Israel and their birthrate is lower than that of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. Some 1.4 million Arabs reside in Israel and there are 3.9 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

NO PAPER IN GAZA Census-takers are also collecting information in Gaza, four months after infighting that culminated in Hamas Islamists seizing control of the coastal strip. Abbas's secular Fatah remains dominant in the bigger West Bank.

Luay Shabaneh, president of the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, said factional tensions had not disrupted preparations for the census, although his staff cannot print out questionnaires because of an Israeli blockade of Gaza.

''There is no paper in Gaza, and we're struggling to deliver computers to our offices,'' Shabaneh told Reuters.

The census may show that more young people are gravitating towards the business hubs of Hebron and Ramallah because of Israeli travel restrictions and a barrier being built in and around the West Bank, Shabaneh said.

During the last census in 1997, Israel banned a head count in Arab East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of a future state. Shabaneh said East Jerusalem would be included this time around but the count there had been delayed.

Since 1997, when officials counted 2.9 million people in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians have lived through the collapse of the peace process, the outbreak of a second uprising, the construction of the West Bank barrier, and a civil war in Gaza.

Many hope this census will point to a brighter future.

''I was very young during the last census but I think things are improving now,'' said 23-year-old Rasha Sarrawi, one of the census takers in Nablus. ''This gives me hope and makes me feel as though we're working towards having our own state.'' REUTERS PD RAI1848

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