smoke over gaza 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Gaza is the "most overpopulated few square miles in the whole world," wrote veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk in a recent dispatch in the British Independent. Both Army Radio station and Al-Jazeera's English television reported that "Gaza is the densest populated area in the world." But the claim is simply not true.
About 9,713 Gazans are crowded into each square mile of the strip's total 147 square miles, according to the US Census Bureau. But there are denser areas in the world such as Singapore (18,645 people per square mile on 241 sq. mi. of territory) and Hong Kong (18,176 per sq. mi. on 382 sq. mi.).
Population density need not translate to abject poverty and political unrest. Singapore and Hong Kong are situated along maritime trade routes and their per capita GDP surpasses $42,000. Gaza, however, despite its Mediterranean shoreline and an estimated $4 billion in offshore natural gas reserves, tallies only $1,100 per capita. Surely, Israel's siege of the hostile Hamasland chokes Gaza and is a major factor in its astronomical unemployment. But, Gaza is not necessarily destined to remain a "rubbish dump of destitute people," to use Fisk's words.
Presumably, Israeli military planners and international diplomats are already deliberating options for Gaza's future when the the terrorist regime is replaced by Egyptians, the Palestinian Authority or the few Hamas-affiliated non-terrorists who can be found. A priority - perhaps the highest priority - should be a major international construction effort to build mega-housing projects in Gaza. Despite the claims of overcrowding, large areas are available for construction.
Where? On the ruins of Gush Katif settlements, relatively large areas that were expropriated by Hamas and Palestinian militias and used as bases until IAF bombers razed them. During the fighting, the area of the former Netzarim settlement and IDF base, situated at a crucial crossroads south of Gaza City, reportedly served as a temporary base for an estimated 150 tanks. Three other areas suitable for such housing projects include the area of the former Dugit and Nisanit in northern Gaza, a short distance from the Erez industrial zone; the ruins of Kfar Darom near the Kissufim crossing in the center of Gaza; and the southern beach areas surrounding the former Neveh Dekalim that could also serve as the location for a major Gazan resort.
New Yorkers are familiar with Levittown, the planned community built 60 years ago by Levitt and Sons that churned out 30 homes a day. Today, the community consists of more than 17,000 homes and 50,000 residents, all located on just 6.9 sq. mi. with a population density of 7,700 people per sq. mi.
For some of the Palestinians in Gaza, a redesigning of Levittown-type single-family housing may be appropriate for clan life. For other Gaza residents, more appropriate may be high-rise projects like the 20 high-rise buildings of Lefrak City in Queens, or Starrett City in Brooklyn with its 5,800 apartments in 43 buildings of eight-20 stories.
A mega-housing project in Gaza will provide thousands of jobs, a major infusion of investment and the concomitant infrastructure for water, desalination, sewage, electricity and transportation. Until they were expelled, Israelis in those Gazan settlements constructed a lucrative hothouse enterprise, growing vegetables and flowers for export. American investors, including Bill Gates, purchased the facilities for the Palestinians only to see them plundered and destroyed. Perhaps the enterprise can be reestablished in areas adjacent to the new housing.
THE PROJECT will require a shift in Palestinian thinking. Twenty-five years ago the Palestinians vehemently opposed Israeli attempts to build new housing for refugees. The descendents of refugees who live in crowded camps make up one-third of Gaza's 1.5 million residents and are wards of UNRWA. They are directed and determined to return only to their ancestral homes in Israel. Those refugees who claimed to have come from Askalaan/Al-Jura may have moved just 20 miles "down the beach" from present day Ashkelon, but decades of propaganda fired their refusal to be rehoused.
In the mid-1990s I visited high-rise apartments under construction in Gaza with US Agency for International Development and European assistance. The apartments proved that Palestinians were willing to move into American-style apartment buildings. The apartments were large and designed for Eastern customs and lifestyle; for instance, both Western and Arab-style commodes were featured in every apartment. I was intrigued by the many subterranean floors which appeared to be formidable bunkers until I learned that the buildings were designated for Palestinian leadership. I was pleased to see the efficient and on-schedule construction of the American-funded buildings. Congress had made the aid conditional on payments to a third-party management authority, not to the corrupt Palestinian Authority. The European construction, free of such restrictions, was far behind schedule.
Hundreds of tons of cement have been poured in Gaza in recent years for Hamas bunkers and subterranean tunnels. Tens of millions of dollars have been invested in tunnels from Sinai and for the weapons that came through them. Perhaps soon Gazans will have the opportunity to use the cement and money for rebuilding lives, not destroying them.
The writer served as deputy chief of mission in the embassy in Washington. Today, he is a consultant on public affairs and blogs at www.lennybendavid.com.