The challenges of living in a tiny country that's increasingly crowded

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, Dec. 2, 1999

JERUSALEM - Things are starting to feel a bit cramped here lately. No, make that extremely tight - and getting more so every day.

Everywhere you live, of course, is a tradeoff. Certainly choosing Israel over Canada pays countless dividends, along with inevitable drawbacks.

One of the biggest challenges for a Canadian living in Israel is adjusting to a very different notion of space. In North America, it's easy to take the relatively spacious conditions for granted. Growing up in Toronto, I always felt vaguely reassured by the sense of unlimited open space that lay beyond the northern limits of the city. It didn't matter how often I actually came into contact with the boundless nature on the horizon. More important was the knowledge that an infinity of wilderness was out there to keep urban civilization in check.

Nothing could be more foreign from the reality in Israel. As a tiny country with a fast growing population and economy, space - both public and private - is in short supply.

You can feel the squeeze every day: In the small homes most people live in; the insanely expensive real estate prices; the dangerously narrow roads; the cramped stores; the diminutive sidewalks; the lack of public parks; the small cars; the close proximity of tables in restaurants and cafes; the way people speak to each other; the way people push and shove; the lack of walk-in cupboards and storage facilities in most homes; the absence of forests and lakes; the woefully inadequate infrastructure at schools; the confining layout of supermarkets; the acute lack of parking for public or private buildings; the extreme sensitivity over the country's final borders... The list is endless.

Perhaps it's understandable in such a diminutive country but as Israel becomes more Westernized, people expect new, bigger housing, more leisure and recreational pursuits, more cars, more highways, etc. It all adds up to a much tighter squeeze - and growing concern over the long-term physical make-up of the country.

Figures published a few weeks ago by the Central Bureau of Statistics revealed what every citizen already knows only too well - that Israel is an extremely densely populated country. At 272 people per square kilometer, it's one of the most crowded nations in the world. It's more thickly settled than India (265 per sq. km.) and is fast approaching Japan (325 per sq. km.).

And if one subtracts the sparsely inhabited Negev, the numbers are much worse. Israel north of the Negev is already more densely populated than any country in the developed world except city-states like Hong Kong or Singapore. The figures are highest in Tel Aviv, with 6,600 people per square kilometer, as compared to only 59 in the Negev.

In contrast to most western countries, Israel's population is increasing considerably every year - spurred on in part by generous financial incentives from the government favoring larger families. Based on current growth rates, within 25 years, the population is expected to reach nearly 11 million, based on current growth rates. All this in a country smaller than New Jersey, where more than half the terrain is scarcely inhabitable.

A few years ago, in anticipation of what Israel will look like in 2020, a government-sponsored planning team came up with a sobering picture that resembles much more Singapore or Hong Kong than the largely rural landscape embraced by early Zionists. Israel, the researchers said, is heading toward a land crunch of massive proportions that will leave the non-urban sector decimated.

Meanwhile, Israel's building boom continues to devour the one scarce resource for which there is no alternative - land. Add to the equation the prospect of Israel giving up the Golan Heights and pulling back from more of the West Bank, meaning military training areas would have to be transferred and new housing built for tens of thousands returning settlers within what would be Israel's new smaller borders.

Not for the first time Israel will then have to tackle a problem almost unthinkable to most of the world - an incredibly tiny country with terribly limited physical resources and a growing population facing the probability that its already confining borders will shrink further.

For now, I suppose you could call Israel cozy and intimate. And on good days it feels that way. But other times, claustrophobic would be a more apt description. I shutter to think what my children will say when they have families and would like to plan a weekend in the country. I suppose there will always be Cyprus, Greece and Turkey to provide Israelis something that by then may be an exotic experience - open space in nature.

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