U.N. sees steep Gaza population growth in 30 years, with economic problems ahead

By Nidal al-Mughrabi GAZA (Reuters) - Gaza's population will more than double in about 30 years, signaling even more serious economic problems ahead for Palestinians in the small enclave if the conflict with Israel is not resolved, a U.N. official said on Tuesday. Andres Thomsen, of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), told Reuters "it will be very hard to imagine that you can create the right conditions for (economic) growth that can accommodate this dramatic population increase", without easing Israel's Gaza blockade. He was commenting on a new UNFPA report examining demographic changes and opportunities for development in the Gaza Strip and Israeli-occupied West Bank. The report forecast an increase in Gaza's population of 2 million to 4.8 million in 2050, outpacing that of the West Bank, where the number of people is predicted to rise from the current 2.9 million to 4.7 million. Thomsen said that even by 2030 there would be 1.3 million additional people in Gaza, territory ruled by the Hamas Islamist group, and meeting their needs will be challenging. Gaza, where Israel and Hamas last fought a war in 2014, already needs thousands of housing units and hundreds of schools and medical centers, aid officials say. But without a peace agreement with Israel, "political instability and the occupation will remain the primary obstacles to making development gains", the UNFPA report said. Peace talks broke down in 2014. The World Bank has also cited a nearly 50 percent decrease in foreign support for the Palestinian Authority in the past three years as a factor in what it has described as a worrying Palestinian economic outlook. Overall the Palestinian economy is expected to grow at around 3.5 percent in the coming years. Thomsen, UNFPA's representative in the Palestinian territories, said that with unemployment in Gaza at 43 percent and 18 percent in the West Bank, 1 million jobs must be created in both areas by 2030 just to prevent those figures from worsening as populations grow. "To do that you need to have targeted investments in young people, in women who will enter the labor market," he said, calling for a "serious dialogue with Israel and others about how the (Israeli) blockade can slowly and gradually be lifted". Israel says it has eased restrictions on overland movement of goods into Gaza but a naval blockade must remain to prevent weapons-smuggling. Egypt, which is at odds with Hamas, keeps its Gaza border largely closed. (Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Alison Williams)