While my claim mirrors that of Joan Peters in her book "From Time Immemorial" it takes nothing from that book; rather my information comes from contemporaneous articles in the Palestine Post. My correspondent dismisses pretty much all evidence that doesn't fit his dogma as unreliable Zionist lies, although he is unclear on exactly what the motive is for a newspaper to put its own reputation on the line by making up stories.
Peters' methodology is heavily criticized in Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens' book, Blaming the Victims. The actual article that takes issue with Peters is written by the hardly-unbiased Norman Finkelstein. He brings up some good points about sloppiness on Peters' part but he is hardly blameless in the other direction. For example, on page 48, Finkelstein takes pains to quote a British official denying a significant number of Hawranites moving from Syria to Palestine because "the Palestine Government had taken special measures" on the Syrian border to keep out undesirable people. Yet a few paragraphs later he admits that there was significant immigration from Hawran, and then claims that the Hawranites all went back into Syria later in the decade. He doesn't bother to point out that if the British denied the the fact of the Hawranites' entry to begin with, that they also would have missed a large percentage of illegal immigrants that they didn't know about.
This is a hard topic to research as the hard numbers that are available are not necessarily accurate. But one scholar that took on this challenge was Fred Gottheil, who took an economic perspective into the issue, in an article in Middle East Quarterly in 1973, predating Peters. He summarized his findings - and showed problems with the critics - in a 2003 article for Middle East Quarterly.
He first establishes well-known patterns of migration from undeveloped economies to more developed economies. He then shows current migratory patterns for Palestinian Arabs towards oil-rich states. He then goes on to document the economy of Palestine as being much better than that of surrounding countries in the 1930s, with the daily wages of Arabs in Palestine more than doubling those of its neighbors. Thus he sets the stage - it would be highly unusual if there wasn't mass migration into Palestine by Arabs in that timeframe.
Direct evidence for this immigration remains fragmentary and somewhat anecdotal, but it does add up:
Gottheil goes on to show the undeniable patterns of intra-Palestine migration towards areas with high Jewish population, again proving that Palestinian Arabs were highly itinerant and providing more circumstantial evidence that Arabs outside Palestine, given the same disparity in economic opportunity, would have great incentive to move into Palestine.
There are several problems associated with estimating Arab immigration into Palestine during the 1920s, the principal one being that Arab migration flows were, in the main, illegal, and therefore unreported and unrecorded. But they were not entirely unnoticed.
Demographer U.O. Schmelz's analysis of the Ottoman registration data for 1905 populations of Jerusalem and Hebron kazas (Ottoman districts), by place of birth, showed that of those Arab Palestinians born outside their localities of residence, approximately half represented intra-Palestine movement—from areas of low-level economic activity to areas of higher-level activity—while the other half represented Arab immigration into Palestine itself, 43 percent originating in Asia, 39 percent in Africa, and 20 percent in Turkey. Schmelz conjectured:
The above-average population growth of the Arab villages around the city of Jerusalem, with its Jewish majority, continued until the end of the mandatory period. This must have been due—as elsewhere in Palestine under similar conditions—to in-migrants attracted by economic opportunities, and to the beneficial effects of improved health services in reducing mortality—just as happened in other parts of Palestine around cities with a large Jewish population sector.
While Schmelz restricted his research of the 1905 Palestinian census to the official Ottoman registrations and used these registrations with only minor critical comment, he did acknowledge that "stable population models assume the absence of external migrations, a condition which was obviously not met by all the subpopulations" that Schmelz enumerated.
Like U.O. Schmelz, Roberto Bachi expressed some reservation about the virtual non-existence of data and discussion concerning migration into and within Palestine. He writes:
Between 1800 and 1914, the Muslim population had a yearly average increase in the order of magnitude of roughly 6-7 per thousand. This can be compared to the very crude estimate of about 4 per thousand for the "less developed countries" of the world (in Asia, Africa, and Latin America) between 1800 and 1910. It is possible that part of the growth of the Muslim population was due to immigration.
Although Bachi did not pursue the linkage between undocumented immigration into Palestine and the 6 (or 7) to 4 per thousand differential in growth rates between Palestine and the other less developed countries (LDCs), the idea that at least one-third of Palestine's population growth may be attributed to immigration is—using Bachi's own growth rate differentials—not an entirely unreasonable one.
Lacking verifiable evidence did not prevent Bachi from stating the obvious concerning internal migration within Palestine:
The great economic development of the coastal plains—largely due to Jewish immigration—was accompanied both in 1922-1931 and in 1931-1944 by a much stronger increase of the Muslim and Christian populations in this region than that registered in other regions. This was probably due to two reasons: stronger decrease in mortality of the non-Jewish population in the neighborhood of Jewish areas and internal migration toward the more developed zones.
In the footnote accompanying this quote, Bachi writes: "As no statistics are available for internal migration, this conclusion has been obtained from indirect evidence." Bachi's footnote is instructive. The "indirect evidence" he referred to no doubt included his understanding of the important role economics plays in explaining demographic movements. While appreciating the value of Ottoman registrations and British mandatory government censuses in providing estimates of Palestinian demography, they were, in his judgment, still crude and incomplete.
Reference to Arab immigration into Palestine during the 1920s is made as well in the British mandatory government's annual compilation of statistical data on population. The Palestine Blue Book, 1937, for example, provides time series demographic statistics whose annual estimates are based on extrapolations from its 1922 census. The footnote accompanying the table on population of Palestine reads:
There has been unrecorded illegal immigration of both Jews and Arabs in the period since the census of 1931, but it is clear that, since it cannot be recorded, no estimate of its volume is possible.
The 1935 British report to the League of Nations noted that:
One thousand five hundred and fifty-seven persons (including 565 Jews) who, having made their way into the country surreptitiously, were later detected, were sentenced to imprisonment for their offence and recommended for deportation.
The number who "made their way into the country surreptitiously" and undetected was neither estimated nor mentioned.
Historian Gad Gilbar's observation on Ruth Kark's contribution to his edited volume Ottoman Palestine, 1800-1914, touches on the issue of Arab immigration into and within Palestine. He relates her ideas in "The Rise and Decline of Coastal Towns in Palestine" to Charles Issawi's thesis concerning the role of minority groups and foreigners in the development of Middle Eastern towns. Explaining why no other Palestinian cities grew as rapidly as Jaffa and Haifa did during the final three decades of the Ottoman rule, Gilbar writes: "Both attracted population from the rural and urban surroundings and immigrants from outside Palestine."
Each piece of the demographic puzzle by itself may reveal no identifiable picture. But given a multiplicity of such pieces, an image does begin to appear. The Royal Institute for International Affairs adds another piece. Commenting on the growth of the Palestinian population during the decades of the 1920s and 1930s it reports: "The number of Arabs who have entered Palestine illegally from Syria and Transjordan is unknown. But probably considerable." And C.S. Jarvis, governor of the Sinai from 1923-36, adds yet another:
This illegal immigration was not only going on from the Sinai, but also from Trans-Jordan and Syria, and it is very difficult to make a case out for the misery of the Arabs if at the same time their compatriots from adjoining states could not be kept from going in to share that misery.
Finally, he looks at Justin McCarthy's "1990 The Population of Palestine" which discounts Arab immigration emphatically without any evidence - in fact, McCarthy uses some numbers from another demographer to "prove" very little immigration while ignoring that other demographer's own caveats that he was not counting illegal immigration. McCarthy makes the same mistake that others do in assuming that British records on illegal immigration were accurate, when in fact they only recorded the number of people they caught and jailed.
Putting it all together, even though Peters' numbers may be exaggerated, it is undeniable that a significant number of what we today call "Palestinians" actually moved into Palestine as a result of the economic opportunities that came in the wake of Jewish - and British - capital and investment. Similarly, the Arabs of Palestine profited greatly from Jewish economic growth, consistently moving towards Jewish areas in order to cash in.