by Daniel Wortel-London
The catastrophe unfolding in Israel and the Gaza Strip is the product of many factors, including colonialism and religious fanaticism. But another impulse driving this disaster deserves discussion: competition over growth and the natural capital—particularly energy, water, and land—that ensures it. These resources provide the basis for economic and population expansion in the Middle East and elsewhere. As nations continue to recklessly pursue this expansion in a finite world we will see more and more struggles over fewer and fewer resources. For the sake of peace as well as planetary health, therefore, we must end the growth obsession that has plunged our planet into chaos.
We cannot understand conflicts in Israel/Palestine, and the Middle East more broadly, without attending to the geopolitics of energy. Israel is a growing economy—its GDP expanded by 8.6% in 2021. Much of this growth is fueled by natural gas and oil—and sizeable reservoirs of these resources have been discovered in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government, however, prevents Palestinians from exploiting this wealth. This breeds both poverty and animosity among the Palestinians. To highlight one statistic: While the per-capita GDP of Israel is $42,100, that of Gaza is only $5,600. Israel’s extractive-based economic growth—and its refusal to redistribute the fruits of that growth to the Palestinian territories which enabled it—thus contributes to the political tensions of the region.
But struggles over energy also lie behind the actions of large nations outside of Israel—actions that are contributing to the region’s instability. China, the world’s largest energy consumer and its second-largest net oil importer, has been investing heavily in trade agreements with Iran, a hated enemy of Israel. Russia has also been courting and purchasing oil from Iran, contributing to the nation’s $19 billion dollars’ worth of crude oil exports in the first quarter of this year. As China and Russia pursue their growth paths, they will purchase growing quantities of oil from other Middle Eastern countries, with much less commitment to Israel’s survival than the United States has. The result is that the politics of growth—and its energy requirements—is helping to isolate Israel geopolitically.
The USA, of course, is not innocent in these matters. For decades, one of the its key interests in the Middle East has been to secure a stable source of oil for its domestic growth. This pursuit has led the United States to support corrupt and tyrannical regimes in the region, such as Saudi Arabia. This in turn leads to inconsistencies and tensions between the U.S. policy of support of Israel and its support of countries that despise Israel. The contradictions are ultimately unsustainable. To be sure, the USA’s “Shale revolution” of recent years has made the country more self-sufficient in terms of hydrocarbon. But this has only increased the role of China and Russia as market partners of Middle-East oil exporters, which bodes ill for Israel.
Water is essential for economic and population growth. Israel has seized control over this vital form of natural capital within Palestinian territories. Eighty-five percent of Palestinian water from West Bank aquifers was taken by Israel as late as 2004, accounting for 25.3 per cent of Israel’s water needs. Palestinians are also denied the right to utilize water from the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers. The result is that water consumption by Israelis is at least four times that of Palestinians. And the result of this is increasing anger on the part of Palestinians.
Israel has also eroded Palestinian capacity to access natural capital. In May 2021 Israel’s military damaged water and sewage infrastructure, even as it slowed or blocked importation of repair parts. As a result, tens of thousands of cubic meters of sewage are flooding into groundwater and the Mediterranean Sea. According to the World Health Organization, 97% of Gaza water is “unfit for human consumption,” largely due to damages caused by Israel’s military operations.
Israel has also siphoned off Palestinians’ natural and human capital for its own growth. Palestinian territories have been locked in a cycle of colonial underdevelopment for decades: Since 1967, Palestinians have lost access to two thirds of their grazing land. In Gaza, half of the cultivatable area and 85 percent of fishery resources are inaccessible to Palestinians. The result is that Palestinians are stuck with terms of “unequal exchange.” Sixty percent of Palestinian trade goes to Israel, and up to 40 percent of the total Palestinian labor force has worked in Israel at some point over the past 50 years. Such a policy replicates, in miniature, the broader dynamics of the global North/South division: reduced labor costs for the former (in this case, Israel), underdevelopment and resentment for the latter (the Palestinians).
Finally, Israeli policies and spiraling Palestinian birthrates have exacerbated competition over another source of natural capital: land for living space. The Gaza Strip, at 139 square miles, is approximately equal in size to the city of Philadelphia. But the Gaza strip has about one-third more people than Philadelphia, and its densest parts have roughly 10 times as many people as Philadelphia’s most populous neighborhoods.
A similar kind of density is evidenced in the West Bank, where Palestinians are concentrated in hundreds of tightly-patrolled zones. Such density, in addition to poor sanitation, contributes to higher mortality rates. Where the average lifespan in the West Bank and Gaza is 73.2 years for males, it is 78.1 years for Israeli males.
Growing populations only increase this competition for space. The median age for Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank is 18, as compared to the global figure of 28 (and 38.1 in the USA). The fertility rate for women in Gaza is 3.34, relatively high by global standards. The reasons for this are complicated. But the result is increased crowding and pressure on resource consumption—resources which grow ever more scarce.
The catastrophe we are witnessing in the Middle East is the product of unique tensions and hatreds dating back hundreds of years. But it is exacerbated by the pursuit of growth, a pursuit driven by greed, competition, and the simple need to survive in a world that seems unable to find other ways to provide for human needs. As long as growth remains the goal of our economies, we will see more conflicts like we are seeing in Israel—everywhere.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is already enough wealth in the world to end extreme poverty seven times over without struggling over our planet’s dwindling resources. We have what we need. To get there, however, all nations must awaken to our responsibilities to redistribute and use our wealth and natural capital in a way that is just and sustainable. As one activist in a joint Palestinian-Israeli climate group has stated, “Everyone here is fighting over land,” adding that unless the resort to violence ends, “there won’t be any land worth living on left.”
Daniel Wortel-London is a Policy Specialist at CASSE.