Mel Frykberg
The Middle East Times
April 10, 2008 - 1:25pm

The deteriorating economic situation in the Palestinian territories has forced many Palestinian children to leave school and take up menial work in an effort to try and help their families survive economically.

This Middle East Times journalist has traveled through both the West Bank and Gaza and is regularly accosted by young children at checkpoints hawking a variety of goods from food and refreshments to plastic toys and kitchen implements.

"Please madam only two shekels" (about 45 U.S. cents) pleaded one wide-eyed youngster. He was bedecked in torn and grubby clothing as his grimy hand offered a few school utensils at the Qalandia checkpoint, which separates Ramallah from Jerusalem.

However other children, who are a little more fortunate in that they are able to still attend school, are also obliged to spend hours partaking in back-breaking labor when they should be doing what children all over the world do, studying, playing with their friends, or engaging in sports.

One 16 year old joined a group of friends at the al-Hawawer Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron to help support his 11-member family.

Unemployment in the West Bank stands at just under 30 percent.

Subhi goes to al-Hawawer checkpoint every morning, dragging his steel handcart behind him. He competes with other boys to get two or three shekels a time for carrying luggage for travelers.

Subhi said he leaves home at daybreak. He goes to school first, then to the checkpoint. By the time he gets back home in the evening, he is completely worn out. "My studies have been negatively affected. I do not have enough time to study. I think it is useless," he said.

Even more disturbing are the children who sift through the makeshift refuse dumps that dot the scenic West Bank in the absence of regulated garbage tips. These are products themselves of Israeli security movement restrictions and the illegal and unregulated dumping of waste in the territory by Israeli companies as a cheaper means of waste disposal than in Israel proper.

Billows of smoke mushroom above some of these waste disposal sites as burning garbage has become a quick but environmentally unsound way of disposing of garbage.

But in so doing carcinogenic particles are released into the air, which Palestinians in their vicinities breathe in on a daily basis. The joint Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmental group, Friends of the Earth Middle East, has warned that the burning of waste is the biggest health threat to Palestinians.

This journalist witnessed Palestinian children scrambling over waste dumps rummaging through waste remnants searching for pieces of scrap metal, plastic and wood and other salvageable items that could possibly be sold in an endeavor to keep the wolf from the door.

The children earn the paltry amount of about $1 a bundle when they sell the recycled scrap on to businessmen, who act as middlemen before selling it on to Israeli recycling companies. Although this amount is little, it can mean the difference between eating or going to bed on an empty stomach.

In Ramallah's vegetable markets numerous young boys also try to make a living by transporting the groceries of shoppers in supermarket trolleys for the equivalent of 50 U.S. cents. An impractical affair as the streets of the de facto Palestinian capital are very crowded with pedestrians and the temporary stalls of hawkers, making it easier to walk while carrying groceries.

Begging has also become a significant social problem, with children as young as three standing at traffic lights for hours in the rain or baking sun. They beg for change or sell cigarette lighters and batteries. At night they sleep in fields, cemeteries, mosques, drainage canals or on streets. Their earnings are often taken by thieves or shady middlemen, and some are sexually abused or forced to sell drugs.

The precarious existence of Palestinians, particularly children, and their inability to enjoy a sound education was sufficiently bad several years ago that Arnold Vercken from the U.N.'s World Food Program commented: "Many people are now living on only bread and the cheapest vegetables, usually those left unsold at the end of the day.

"We are also very concerned about the growing numbers of people, often children, rummaging through garbage cans," Vercken said.

The situation today, and especially in Gaza, is even more critical following the international embargo and Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip in the wake of Hamas' take over of the territory in June 2007.

According to the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics, 40,000 children under 18 work in the occupied Palestinian territories – 73 percent of whom are forced to work due to severe financial conditions

And while the education of Palestinian children has suffered, some children have been prepared to pay an even higher price.

Some have risked their lives to breach the Israeli separation barrier as they try to reach Israeli cities and town to do the unpleasant manual labor that Israelis refuse to do.

This has resulted in some children being shot dead or wounded as they climbed the wall or arrested and then sent back home. But so desperate is their plight that they often return as soon as they can.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017