This was crossposted at Z-Word Blog.
There is a common misperception that the Gaza Strip is "one of the most populated places on the planet". Sometimes this is said because people want to emphasize the plight of the "overcrowded" Palestinian people, accuse Israel of stealing most of "Palestinian" land, and sometimes it is said by others to remark that in case of war in the Gaza strip, there is no chance of fighting it without hitting civilians, since the Palestinians are, as if were, living one over the other.
But the Gaza Strip is not one of the most populated places on the planet.
Nor Gaza city is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
and not even Gaza refugee camps are somehow unique in this respect.
The misperception is based on two true facts:
- The disputed territories with Israel on which Palestinian-Arabs live (Gaza and the West Bank), if they are considered as a country or independent region (and in the future they might be a country), are 14th in the rank of population density. Of course, behind Macau, Monaco, Singapore, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Vatican City, Malta, Bermuda, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Maldives, and the Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey. If we keep on the list only independent countries and drop the regions affiliated with a country, Gaza and the West Bank would be 8th in the rank (of a total of 193 countries).
- Palestinians have a high birthrate. They were ranked 31th by the UN (behind many African countries, however).
When you think about a high birthrate and you rank countries according to their population density, then you get the impression that the Palestinians have to live packed like sardines, just because they are ranked 8th in the world and have lots of children. However, this impression is not true. The disputed territories rank so high simply because they lack (Gaza especially, the West Bank not so much) miles and miles of unpopulated or sparsely populated countryside, that is common in most other countries in the world. It is this absence that makes them rank so high, and not a supposed overcrowding. It is worthy to remind the reader that Israeli settlements are not responsible for the lack of countryside. There are no Israeli settlements in Gaza. Settlements in the West Bank occupy less than 5% of the land.
This said, it is not as if the Gaza strip didn't have empty spaces and open fields inside its small (for a country) territory.
See for example this map of Gaza:
Everything that is pink or orange is not a built-up area. Room enough to build there, but of course, it is not really what you'd call a countryside.
Lets take then Gaza, which is the most extreme case in the Palestinian land issue and leave the West Bank outside of the following discussion. By considering Gaza, I am stacking the argument against me, since the West Bank has actually unpopulated areas which, if taking into account, would take the average Palestinian population density down.
Actually, what you have to do is to compare the Gaza strip with any other urbanized area in the world -not with a whole country- do the maths, and then get your own conclusions. Since I am an Argentinian, born in Buenos Aires, the capital, but now living in Israel, I will take Buenos Aires as the opposite example. Because some of you would argue that by comparing the Gaza strip with an urbanized area and not with a country I am somehow deceiving my readers, let me first explain a few things:
1. I was born in Buenos Aires and lived there most of my life.
2. Generally, I would spend more than 330 days a year inside the city, and only on holidays I would leave it.
3. Buenos Aires, as the capital of the country, attracts workers from the suburbs. Every day there would be traffic jams on the entrances to the city, every morning and every afternoon, when people left the city for their homes outside. Every day I would take an overcrowded subway to another neighborhood to work, and the same to go back home.
This means that I and most of the people in my city, would live surrounded by millions of people all year long. For us, it is simply normal. What I want to say with this is that my city is my country for all practical purposes. I only saw open spaces when I was on vacations. Just as the Palestinians in the Gaza strip would. Because of this I feel that it is absolutely correct to compare the territory of Gaza with a city. People don't move 400 km every day. People live in cities. If something is overcrowded, then it is a city.
Now, lets go for the numbers:
The Gaza strip has a surface of 360 sq km.
In the Gaza strip lives an estimated population of 1,551,859.
The Gaza strip has no daily or even seasonal population variations. There are no people from the "suburbs" who come to work everyday to the strip. Its population is stable and growing.
This means that the Gaza strip has a stable average population density of 4.311 people/sq. km.
Now, the city of Buenos Aires occupies a surface of exactly 200 sq. km. And its resident population (those who live inside the city) numbers 2.776.138 people (according to the 2001 census). This means that the approximate Buenos Aires' population density every night, when the non-resident population goes home, numbers 13,881 people/ sq km. In other words, during the hours in which Buenos Aires is mostly empty, it has 3.21 times the population density of the Gaza strip.
But what happens during the day? I was awake during the day, I went to work during the day, most of my life experiences inside the city, at least 340 days a year occur during the day, when the non-resident population floods the city from the suburbs and share the space with me and the rest of the residents.
Every working day, more than 3.200.000 people enter Buenos Aires to work (with 1.100.000 cars). This means that every day there are 5.976.138 people inside the same 200 sq. km of the city. Buenos Aires has a population density of: 29.881 people / sq. km by day, or 6.93 times that of the Gaza strip.
Are we, not Gazans, packed like sardines? That is not how I felt when I was living there. It is normal. An urban area. A city. And in comparison to Gaza, Porteños (that is how we call ourselves, the inhabitants of the city of Buenos Aires) don't have the sea nearby (and the river is polluted, bathing in it is forbidden by law).
But what if I cross the city border to the other side, do I get to walk through sunny plains where all you can see is the tall grass of the Pampas? You wish. On the other side of the city line there are only blocks and blocks and more blocks of buildings and almost the same population density as on the city, for several kilometers. In fact, almost 10 million people more live in neighborhoods surrounding the city, in what is called the "Greater Buenos Aires".
Is the city of Buenos Aires "one of the most populated places on the planet"? Not a chance. It is only 59th in the world ranking, behind evidently "unlivable" places like Moscow, London, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago de Chile, Los Angeles, Madrid, Berlin and others. Do people who live in these cities get worldwide sympathy like the Palestinians because they are living in "one of the most populated places on the planet"? I don't think so.
Now, numbers tell the story, but a picture is worth more than a thousand words.
This is the Gaza strip on Google Earth. Pay attention to gray areas. Those are the built-up places in the strip. It fits with what we saw on the previous map.
Now this is the city of Buenos Aires. As you can see, most of it looks gray. It is all built-up. From the river to the city border (drawing a line East-West) it measures 15.5 kilometers.
This is Gaza city. From the sea to the border (drawing a line northwest to southeast) it is only 6 km long. A short walk.
This is a detail of Buenos Aires city center. Each small square you see is a 100 meters x 100 meters block, packed up with seven to fourteen-story buildings, leaning one against the other.
This is my own neighborhood in Buenos Aires, called "Villa Crespo", where I "suffered so much" because of overcrowding. I marked in orange my block.
And this is an even closer detail of my own block. My house is a small rectangle in one of the corners of the block.
Gaza city then, is small potatoes compared to my city if you speak of overcrowding. It would be for me a small and sleepy town.
This is a panorama of Gaza city, with the beautiful Mediterranean sea on the background.
And this is a panorama of Buenos Aires, my city, with... well, the smog as the background.
Please, click on every picture to see them in a bigger resolution.
Now, some people would now say that I am comparing a strip with a city (although the Gaza Strip is only 1.8 times the size of the city of Buenos Aires). That I should have compared Gaza city with Buenos Aires city. And that I am not considering the situation of the people living in the refugee camps in Gaza. Surely, they are living in an uniquely overcrowded hell? Surely nothing equals their situation with anything found in the city of Buenos Aires?
Well, lets consider the refugee camp.
This is Jabalia, in the north of the Gaza Strip. Jabalia is the biggest refugee camp in the Gaza strip by population: 107,590 people live there today according to UNRWA.
Its area is 1.4 sq. km. So its population density is 76.850 people / sq. km. Pretty packed isn't it? 2.57 times the average population density of the city of Buenos Aires as a whole during the day. Even the Wikipedia entry that gave me its area calls it "one of the most densely populated places on earth". Now surely people were actually referring to this small part of the Gaza strip and this small proportion of Palestinians when they mistakenly said that the Palestinian territories were one of the most populated places on the planet, and that Palestinians were living in an intolerable high density of population.
Well, I don't deny that it looks pretty tight in there, although the clear absence of buildings surely has to have something to do with the overcrowding. But, wait a moment, what are these?
These are Buenos Aires' "refugee camps". They are called Villas Miseria (neighborhoods of misery or shanty towns would be the appropiate translations). I have only marked the largest ones, there are many more that are too small to see in this picture, mostly bordering the river on the south, one of the most polluted in the world, called the "Riachuelo".
Lets see one of the Villas Miserias up close.
This is called Villa 21-24 or Villa 21-24-Zavaleta (originally they were three separated villas miseria). Its population numbers 45.285 people. Its area is 0.66 sq km. Its population density then, is 68.613 people / sq. km., or 0.89 times that of the worst case in the Gaza strip, i.e. almost equal.
With one important element missing from the picture: the inhabitants of Villa 21-24 do not receive any kind of international aid. They don't have a dedicated refugee agency only for them, like the Palestinians have. They don't have any sort of agency at all.
If we are talking about oppression, during the early 1980s the military government forcibly expelled 200.000 people living in villas miseria outside the city (the government just dropped them on wastelands in the province). Since the beginning of the democracy in the eighties the population of the Villas Miserias has grown again.
I don't know if Villa 21-24 is the most densely populated shanty town in the city of Buenos Aires or there is an even worse case. I just took this example because it is the biggest. One last thing: according to some studies, 70% of the inhabitants of the villas miseria are not Argentinian citizens and the inhabitants of the villas miseria represent 7% of the residents of the city of Buenos Aires. A substantial amount.
See a detail of Villa 21-24, it looks just like a refugee camp!
You can compare a panoramic view of Jabalia (during the war)
With the front view of Villa 1-11-14 in Buenos Aires:
Or walk through Villa 1-11-14 narrow and soiled streets...
Or with a panoramic view of an even poorer Villa Miseria in a suburb of the city of Buenos Aires, Ingeniero Budge, where people live inside rooms made of corrugated tin, something no Palestinian has ever experienced in his life (please click picture to enlarge):
We are not talking about a favela in Rio, or a shanty town in Venezuela, or even a poor neighborhood in India or Bangladesh. Buenos Aires is a normal city in the third world, and poor people in the third world live like this. There is nothing uniquely extreme about the plight of the Palestinians. Shanty towns in all those other countries I mentioned are, without a doubt, more overcrowded than Palestinian refugee camps.
Just take a look at this:
Favela Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.
Favela Morumbi, Sao Paulo, Brasil.
Or if you want to really freak out - ha, ha- , see the city next to where I live, Bat Yam, in Israel.
So, the "Palestinian territories" are not one of the most populated places on the planet.
The Gaza Strip is not one of the most populated places in the world.
Nor Gaza city is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
And not even Gaza refugee camps -which house a small percentage of the Palestinian population- are unique in this respect either. A villa miseria in Buenos Aires, Argentina is as densely populated as them. A villa miseria in Brasil, or Mexico or Venezuela or India is several times more densely populated than a Palestinian refugee camp.
But why, you may and should ask, are the Palestinians in Gaza still living in refugee camps, when Israel has not been in control of the territory between 1949 to 1967 and again since august 2005? Now that the Palestinians are in full control of the territory, how come do refugee camps for Palestinians exist in the territory that Palestinians rule? Why is a noticeable percentage of their population still living in relative overcrowding if there are enough empty spaces in the Gaza strip to create model neighborhoods and tall buildings? Ask the UNRWA and ask Hamas.