How Hamas terrorists ‘feed off Gaza’s desperation’ to stoke war with Israel
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Leaders on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict have long been wise to the power of demographics.
Israeli politicians were weary of the historically higher birth rate among Arabs, who would surely overwhelm them in a shared, binational state. Yasser Arafat, former chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, once said: “The womb of the Arab woman is my strongest weapon.”
Far more so than the West Bank, the Gaza Strip is, in this sense, a place of extremes. In an area equivalent to that of Manchester and Birmingham, with some 16,300 people per square mile it is one of the most densely populated places on Earth.
Israel’s chokehold of its borders has exacerbated hardships, and fuelled resentment in turn.
Henrik Urdal, a Norwegian political scientist and the current director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, has been researching the relationship between demography and instability for decades.
The writing has been on the wall “for ages” he told Express.co.uk, as leaving Gaza with “very little economic or political prospects is an explosive combination”.
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Since 2000, the population of the State of Palestine – the West Bank and the Gaza Strip combined – has increased by two-thirds from three to 5.2 million.
The median age is just 19.2 years old, one of the youngest in the world and one of very few outside sub-Saharan Africa to be below 20. Compare this to a global average of 28, Israel’s 29.1 or the UK’s 40.
This is perhaps best visualised by the country’s population pyramid, showing the number of people that fit into the different age brackets. The high proportion of youngsters creates a triangular shape, tapering off at the top. Population ageing in the West produces a more bell-shaped chart.
Academia describes this as a “youth bulge” – a consequence of infant mortality rates falling rapidly while fertility remains high. According to Mr Urdal, who is now director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Palestine’s “youth bulge” is among the largest in the Middle East.
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Palestine once had the highest fertility rate in the world, at almost eight births per woman in 1960 – almost double Israel’s four at the time.
Gaza has been driving this trend. Even having fallen considerably, the Strip’s rate of 3.3 today is the highest in the Middle East, well above that of the West Bank (2.9), Israel (2.5) and the G7 average of 1.5.
This is believed to be the case for a combination of reasons. Firstly, female labour force participation is among the lowest in the world, averaging just 15.5 percent over the past two decades, according to a recent study by the IMF.
Secondly, compensation systems encourage it, claims Jon Pedersen of the Fafo Foundation, a Norwegian social research institute. “It is employers that are willing to pay it,” he said. “Traditionally, men will get extra wages if they have extra children.”
Finally, there is a sense of duty instilled by Hamas, who have ruled over the enclave ruthlessly since 2007. Faced with then-US president Donald Trump’s 2019 peace plan perceived as skewed in favour of Israel, Palestinian ambassador Riyad Mansour warned his people would “accelerate their reproductive machines” in response.
Speaking to New Scientist, Mr Pedersen added: “There have been statements from Hamas urging women to have more children to create a larger army.”
A sizeable body of empirical research has concluded that a strong “youth bulge” elevates the risk of political violence. In particular, the presence of idle young men has been shown to aggravate its impact.
The Israeli blockade on the flow of goods and people through Gaza has taken a devastating toll. While the unemployment rate in the West Bank is 15.5 percent, on the Strip it is 47 percent.
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, over half of the Gazan population was estimated to be living in a state of poverty in 2017.
Rather than let discontent be unleashed inward, for years Hamas has channelled it towards Israel. And with Israel last night accused of launching its most devastating offensive yet – with 500 people killed in a missile strike on a hospital – this sentiment is only expected to feed into the narrative.
Dr Asha Amirali of the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bath explored the relationship between the “youth bulge” and political unrest in Iraq after years of Western occupation. To her, the parallels with Gaza are plain.
“Hamas feeds on the desperation of a brutalised population,” she told Express.co.uk.
“The history of South Africa, the US Civil War, the Algerian freedom struggle, and so many other moments illustrate that violent domination, extreme inequality, and the subjugation of populations leads to violence by the oppressed.”
Mr Urdal added: “There will be no resolution to the conflict so long as solutions aren’t provided for this youth. It is a combination of economics, politics and demographics.”
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