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Israeli Palestinian Population Collision Course

You could be forgiven for wondering, as once again we approach another new round of Middle East peace talks in an attempt to find a lasting resolution to this 60 year old conflict, why this piece is in the population section as opposed to straightforward International analysis.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one that most of have grown up with. It is a fact of life. One of those things, like starvation in Africa, or floods in Bangladesh; it’s just what happens in that part of the world. Population pressure may not have been directly responsible for the creation of the problem, but it is certainly a major barrier to any peaceful solution..

Just to recap a few basic facts, Israel came into being, following a UN resolution, in 1948. The surrounding Arab states vowed it would not last and launched an all out war to drive all Israelis into the sea. Local Palestinians were advised to vacate the area temporarily so as to minimize collateral damage. The war to end the existence of Israel did not go exactly to the Arab plan, and, when the shooting stopped, those Palestinians that found themselves on the wrong side of the new border were not allowed to return to their homes and thus a refugee nation was born.

Some of the refugees were able to find their way to other countries, but many were not. In 1950 the West Bank and Gaza Strip were home to just over one million Palestinian refugees, 245,000 in Gaza, and 770,000 on the West Bank. With a population of a mere one and a quarter million, Israel only just outnumbered the refugees. They were viewed as a major threat to national security, and it was unthinkable to allow them to return - especially not as voting citizens of a democratic Israel.

Israel embarked on a successful period of nation building, developing infrastructure and doubling its population in a little over 15 years, all the while defending itself against further attempts to end its existence.

The Palestinians were not having such a good time of things, no nation building for them. It took them until 1978 to increase their population to that of Israel's. Not Israel’s 1978 population, which by now was almost 3.6 million; no it took 28 years to catch up with Israel’s 1950 population, 1.28 million.

Having reached this milestone, the Palestinians appeared to resolve not to wait so long for the next one, and by 1995 they hit the 2.5 million mark. Of course by this time the Israeli population, assisted by immigration from the Soviet Union, had leapt to 5.3 million. But the important thing for the Palestinians was the tide had been turned, and rather than falling behind in the battle of the crib, they were gaining.

These figures include projections for the next 40 years, up until 2050. They show the convergence of the two populations which can be interpreted in two ways. One way is that as the populations balance each other out both parties may be more amenable to an equitable solution. The other is that as neither side enjoy a decisive population advantage the conflict will drag on until such an advantage is achieved.

There are two other population pressure effects that are not obvious from looking at the overall population numbers.

Firstly, Israel is facing a western style aging population scenario. This has two implications. In the crucial 15-39 age group, the so called ‘Military Age’, Israel will have gone from a position of absolute supremacy in 1983, when their over one and a quarter million 15-39 year old's almost outnumbered the entire Palestinian population and achieved more than 3:1 supremacy over the same Palestinian age group, to a position in 2050 where, whilst still outnumbering them, the ratio will now be 2.9:2; a very worrying scenario form an Israeli security perspective.

To make matters worse for Israel, the number of elderly (65+) will have increased to almost 2 million. Whilst by no means all of these people will be unproductive, about a third of them will be over 80 and this will prove a significant drain on national resources.

In comparison, the Palestinian population's aging issues are relatively minor, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of overall population. Assuming no change in overall conditions, Palestinians will also enjoy the 'advantage' of lower expectations and access to expensive elderly care support.

The second issue that is not immediately obvious from the total population figures concern land density. Settlement activity between Israel and the West Bank with encroachment by one group onto land that the other group considers to be theirs has triggered many breakdowns in the peace process. The powder keg, however, lies in Gaza.

Back in 1950 there were 245,000 people squeezed into the 360SqKm (139 square miles); that's a population density of 680 people per sq/km, which is more than the 2050 forecast of Israel's population density, 500.3.

As the population increases, the available land does not. As of now the Gaza Strip still has some way to go before it catches up with the population density of Honk Kong, but catch up it will - in around 20 years time.

Now admittedly downtown Hong Kong is far more densely populated than Hong Kong overall. That is because it is home to countless sky rise buildings, and apartment towers, not features for which Gaza is renown.

So where does this leave us?

As with so many areas where population pressure is a factor, there is a tendency to ignore it, to focus on other issues that seem more pertinent to the situation at hand. In the case of the Middle East there are so many issues to choose from. 

The point is that all of the religious divide issues are but  window dressing. The fundamental question that needs to be addressed is how do we divide the land so every one can get, if not their fair share, at least enough milk and honey to survive on.

If there is any modern day Solomon out there who has the wisdom, and power, to design and impose a lasting settlement that does not involve genocide, now would be a good time to make him, or her, self known.

As for me, I see dead people.



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