THE GAZA STRIP has been called "a refugee state." Indeed it is humbling to wander through the Beach Camp, built to the edge of the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza City. A lonely child, severely underfed, sits on an oil drum, talking to himself and staring at the sea. An old, toothless woman invites me to sip mint tea in her dark shack, then shows me photographs of of herself as a beautiful young girl. "Where was this taken?" I ask. In Jaffa, she explains, now part of Israel. "I fled in 1948. I've lived here ever since."
Gaza City is an odd place. Dusty, hot, and teeming with children, it offers scenes of squalor juxtaposed with bursts of opulence. Donkey carts coexist with Jaguars roaring by. Futuristic buildings colored pink and periwinkle—built recently when the Palestinian Authority came here to govern and rich Arabs invested in the city—tower over neighborhoods where older buildings have been ripped apart by Israeli bombs.
Despite the unrest, people carry on. Shops sell furniture and mobile telephones; people go out to dinner. One afternoon, I passed a school when the gates opened. Children gushed out, the boys in T-shirts and blue denim, the girls in head scarves and long smocks—separate from the boys since the society is Muslim.
As I traveled throughout the Gaza Strip, I kept encountering multitudes of children. In the north at Beit Hanoun, they played soccer in streets chewed up by Israeli bulldozers, hide and seek in the rubble of demolished houses, and even romped on jagged water pipes and bridges that the Israelis had bombed.
I thought it sad that the Israeli government found collective punishment necessary, inflicting wounds on neighborhoods, villages, and towns for the crimes of single terrorists. The policy is disproportionate, and it has not worked.
Most Palestinians are ambivalent about Hamas and the other militant Muslim groups. On the one hand, they admire Hamas for its fierce resistance to Israel and the United States; on the other they want peace and quiet, work to feed their families, and they hold Hamas responsible for the paralysis of their economy and the horrors of collective punishment.
Yet these huge Palestinian families may one day unlock the riddle of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I mentioned the mobs of children thoughout Gaza—and the same is so in the West Bank. Palestinians generally do not practice birth control; it is not unusual to meet a Palestinian father who has eight, 10, or even 15 children. Israeli families normally do not exceed two or three children.
This phenomenon is what sociologists call a "demographic time bomb"—and it terrifies Israelis across the political spectrum. Within the next two decades, Arabs between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will surpass Jews in numbers. Many Palestinians consider the road map a bad joke, and are willing to wait until Arabs command a majority in all of historical Palestine.
Michael Tarazi, a legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority, urges patience until Arabs and Jews become in effect one entity throughout Israel and the West Bank and Arabs can demand equal rights. He argues that eventually the world will impose a one man, one vote system on Israel. Soon enough, with an Arab majority, a Palestinian will be elected president of a new state embracing all of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.
The argument is full of holes, but demographically it contains a certain logic. Liberal Israelis are determined to retain Israel's mostly Jewish character. They realize that time for a two-state solution is running out. They agree with the Arabs that Ariel Sharon's plan for a minimal Palestinian state will never work.
Thus they are thrown back on President Bush's "road map." This process—already so vague about final borders and how a Palestinian state will be achieved—will inevitably fail unless Bush makes decisions from which his predecessors have recoiled. Of course he will put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to crack down on terrorism. But how will he confront the obstructions and delaying tactics of Sharon, who palpably has no intention of dismantling major settlements or surrendering East Jerusalem?
One wonders whether Bush has a clear idea of the mountains he must move. Does he realize that to move Sharon he may have to withhold spare parts for the Apache helicopters, F-16 aircraft, and other military equipment that the United States sells or gives to Israel?
Polls show that most Israelis still want to exchange land for peace. Reports reaching Israel suggest that Bush is furious with the Sharon government for impeding the road map. Possibly he senses that this is the last chance for a two-state solution. Those multitudes of children in Gaza and the West Bank will soon grow up, and then the demographic time bomb may explode.