Mountains of work have analysed the roots of the conflict in Gaza, but all have missed the catalyst of increasing population.
By Jon Austen and Jane O’Sullivan
The Israel-Palestine conflict has been ongoing for 75 years. The recent eruption of violence is a tragedy but not surprising. Neither side is going to back down, both are redoubling their efforts, both know that they are right and the other side is at fault. Neither offers a viable solution.
From its very beginning, peace has eluded Israel, due to the difficulties of accommodating the nationalist aspirations of two peoples in one small land. International peace efforts have repeatedly failed and now we have an escalation which is horrifying the whole world. Israel has taken a very painful blow and will retaliate in kind. Take a step back, however, and a fundamental catalyst is missed: rapidly increasing numbers of people on both sides.
Whenever two differing peoples with increasing numbers are forced to share limited resources, conflict arises. Deteriorating living conditions are inevitable due to population increase, but each side blames the other for its woes. Sides are taken and grudges for past aggressions fester, regardless of the retribution already meted out.
When both sides decide that their security depends on more people, it becomes a pact of mutual destruction. In both Palestine and Israel, such sentiments are often voiced: the Palestinians to produce soldiers to avenge their people, the Israelis to strengthen the Zionist project and expand its territories (some still feel they need to replace Jews lost in the Holocaust).
Both sides are increasing in numbers far more than surrounding countries. Some groups on both sides claim to be following God’s directives. For reasons of pride, religion and nationalism, any mention of managing numbers is met with immediate dismissal and contempt by both sides, considered too ridiculous to even consider. Given the impossibility of so many people flourishing harmoniously on such a small resource base, and given the continual increase in potential grievances, an endless cycle of war, oppression and bitterness is therefore the default option.
Palestine’s population has risen from 1 million to 5 million since 1970 and absolute numbers are rising faster than at any point in history, with another 100,000 added every year, despite falls in fertility over those decades, as well as considerable emigration. The median age is under 20, compared to the UK which is 42. The Gaza Strip is home to two million people with a population density of over 5,000 per square kilometre. This makes it one of the most densely populated places on the planet. This is in a tiny area of virtual desert, leaving people close to poverty with the majority of the population depending on international aid.
Israel’s population has risen from around 2 million to 9 million since 1960 with absolute numbers still rising at roughly 130,000 per year and a with a median age of 29. Having only recently tipped below 3 children per woman, it has the highest fertility of any Western, industrialised country. Despite Israel’s admirable achievements in greening the desert and leading the world in water use efficiency and water recycling, it depends on imports for all staple foods.
Population rise is not the sole cause of this conflict, but it is a factor. It is never the spark, but a large share of the tinder.
The world has turned a blind eye to demographics in this area for fear of upsetting people and “blaming the victims” rather than oppressors or terrorists. This is despite evidence from around the world that countries with stable populations are happier and their citizens have better lives. Had both sides not engaged in rapid population growth and remained at a manageable 3 million, instead of a combined 14 million now, it is feasible that Israelis and Palestinians could be peaceful neighbours. Moreover, even if conflicts had continued, a stabilized population of 3 million would have meant fewer victims in wars and pandemics.
This is a prime example where overpopulation is a glaring factor in a crisis but is not considered by any news outlets and plays no part in negotiations for peace. This is a complete failure on both sides and by international negotiators, and a tragedy for all those involved. There’s no easy way of pointing out harsh truths about population’s impact on this problem, but acknowledging its role would be a start. For anyone with such interest, Alon Tal’s excellent book “The land is full. Addressing overpopulation in Israel” (2016) is a good start. As Paul and Anne Ehrlich write in the Foreword, “If there is any glimmer of light [in the region], it is this brilliant book”.
Until both sides lower birth rates and stabilise their populations, there is no peaceful end to the conflict in sight. Peace can only mean a temporary truce, until tensions build further under the pressure of overpopulation.