Ramallah, September 17, 2016—In his 12 years of life, Rezek K. has lived through three major Israeli military offensives on the Gaza Strip in 2008–2009, 2012 and most recently, in the summer of 2014.
“We used to have a house, but we lost everything when the Israelis bombed it in 2012,” Rezek from Tal al-Hawa, west of Gaza city, told Defense for Children International - Palestine. He is one of thousands of Palestinian children who have been forced into the labor market, as numerous Israeli assaults on Gaza left its economy in shambles.
One year after losing their home, Rezek’s father was no longer able to provide for his wife and four children. “My dad owned a bakery, but he lost everything,” Rezek said. “He became jobless. He had money to provide for us, but he then ran out of money and could not feed us. So he asked me to work and help him out.”
In September of 2015, Rezek began working in his uncle’s bakery 11 hours a day, six days a week. He operates the bakery’s furnace and dough-cutting machine, both posing serious safety risks to a child.
“I work on the dough cutter, with knives cutting the dough. It could cut off your hand if you get distracted for a second,” Rezek told DCIP. “My co-worker, Luai, was distracted and had three of his fingers cut off.”
Working for 20 shekels ($5.20) a day, Rezek described the bakery as “dangerous” and “a living hell” because of the high temperatures generated by the furnace without proper ventilation.
He told DCIP that his coworker suffered an injury while igniting the gas furnace. “You could smell his hair on fire,” Rezek said. “He could not see for two weeks. My uncle took him to the eye hospital, but didn’t register it as a work incident.”
As the Palestinian Ministry of Labor lacks adequate resources to monitor work conditions, the safety of workers, including unregistered child laborers, is mostly left to business owners’ whims.
“I have no rights, vacations, health insurance or work insurance,” Rezek said. “The same goes for the rest of the workers.”
In a global report, the International Labour Organization (ILO), indicates that poverty and economic “shocks” — wars, natural disasters, for example— drive child labor. Simply put, when families can’t meet basic needs, children are forced to help provide.
Given this correlation, it is unsurprising that child labor in Gaza has doubled in five years, as more and more Gazans have been unable to recover their economic footing. The World Bank estimates that the 2014 war alone caused some $460 million dollars in economic damage to Gaza’s economy
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that between July 7 and August 26, 2014, Israeli forces carried out more than 6,000 airstrikes, and fired approximately 14,500 tank shells and 35,000 artillery shells. Palestinians sustained enormous losses, as 2,220 died. DCIP verified 547 Palestinian child fatalities, nearly 68 percent of whom were aged 12 years old or younger.
These attacks reduced to rubble an “unprecedented” 18,000 Palestinian homes and partially damaged a further 153,200 housing units, displacing 500,000 at its peak.
As well as homes, many schools were destroyed by airstrikes. United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reported that over half of Gaza’s 520 educational facilities were damaged, affecting 559,000 students.
In April of this year, OCHA highlighted 364 cases of children dropping out of school in the war’s aftermath. Of this number, the overwhelming majority, 307, were boys who entered the labor market.
In addition to these larger shocks, Israel has launched numerous other smaller-scale operations in Gaza. Each has chipped away at families’ resources, edging children into higher and higher risk categories.
Israel’s 9-year blockade has likewise contributed to the present humanitarian crisis, enforcing tight restrictions on the movements of people, materials, and services in and out of the Gaza Strip. The blockade has slowed reconstruction and prevented economic recovery.
Through many successive Israeli attacks, Rezek’s family, adapted, managed. However, his father was no longer able to provide for his four children after Israeli bombs destroyed their home in 2012.
Rezek dropped out of school at the end of sixth grade, listing among his reasons poor grades and harsh punishments from his teachers, including corporal punishment. Hitting students across their hands is a form of punishment still used in Palestinian government schools, in violation of international child rights standards. At home, when he was struggling to understand and complete his assignments, Rezek said nobody was available to help him
Rezek told DCIP that he has thought of looking for less dangerous roles but found no other options. “There is no work at all, and I cannot stop because my family needs the money,” Rezek said.
"Israel's repeated bombing of Gaza over the last decade has laid waste to Gaza’s economy," said Ayed Abu Eqtaish Accountability Program director at DCIP. "These assaults have robbed countless youths of their childhood, forcing them to take whatever job they can find, even if it is hazardous."
Still a child, Rezek tires of working 66 hours a week. “Sometimes I get upset and quit,” Rezek said. “But my father brings me back, saying that I should help my family.”