Ramallah, September 14, 2016—There are times when Abdel-Salam H., 12, has hidden in the icebox of his grandfather’s fishing boat to avoid the Gaza Naval Police so he could continue his 14-hour work shift off Gaza’s coast to help provide for his family.
“I did not understand anything except that I wanted to live like other children my age,” Abdel-Salam told Defense for Children International - Palestine. “I used to ask my father for money, and he would say he did not have any. I grew up and understood why my father could not give me any money, because he could not afford to buy us food. I started thinking of helping him and making money.”
Abdelsalam is just one of approximately 9,700 children working in Gaza. Since June 2007, Israel has imposed an illegal military land, sea, and air blockade on Gaza. The blockade heavily restricts imports and exports, the movements of people and services. As livelihoods continue to dwindle in the blockade’s 9th year and resilience thins with repeated Israeli incursions, more families are resorting to child labor in an attempt to secure food and shelter.
“My parents didn’t force me to drop out [of school], I did it on my own to help the family,” Abdel-Salam told DCIP. He said that his poor grades in fifth grade, combined with his father’s deepening debt, prompted his decision to work full time.
In June 2015, Abdel-Salam started working on his grandfather’s fishing boat every day, from 3 p.m. to 5 a.m. with a 1- 2 hour break. Only when weather such as high winds make conditions unsuitable for fishing, does Abdel-Salam get a night off.
The work is extremely demanding, both physically and mentally. “We sort out the fish and put them in boxes. This is painful because I bend over while doing it,” he said. “If there are a lot of fish, I don’t get a break. If I stop, my uncles shout at me and beat me. They do it because they want me to learn and become a good fisherman.”
The Palestinian Child Law No. 7 set the minimum age for employment at 15 years of age and 18 years of age for hazardous work. However, the lack of Palestinian Ministry of Labor inspectors in the Gaza Strip makes child labor, as well as other worker safety regulations, hard to enforce. This puts child workers at risk, as they labor in spaces lacking basic safety tools or processes.
Abdel-Salam says his grandfather’s boat is not equipped with even a first aid kit or any flotation devices. “I once hurt myself when a chain got wrapped around my hand and got stuck. I broke my fingers and felt so much pain,” he told DCIP.
Abdel-Salam is happy he can swim but says this is not the case for all children working on family fishing boats. “I remember that a while ago, a six-year-old boy drowned and died.”
The blockade, coupled with repeated Israeli strikes which have devastated Gazan infrastructure, are primary causes of the current humanitarian crisis. Poverty rose to 39 percent after Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza and unemployment reached a staggering 43 percent, likely the highest in the world, according to a 2015 World Bank report.
Poverty fueled by unemployment and often accompanied by homelessness or insecure shelter, acutely heightens the risk of child labor. The blockade’s role in this crisis cannot be overstated as it has prevented the entry of much-needed materials for reconstruction, suppressed multiple sectors of Gaza’s economy and exacerbated food shortages.
A recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Developmement (UNCTAD) publication highlights the blockade’s “dual-use list,” which prohibits large swathes of items that Israel has identified as potentially harmful, from entering Gaza. The list includes raw materials such as wood and steel, agricultural and telecommunication materials.
UNCTAD makes clear, “Enforcement of the stringent dual-use restrictions obstructs reconstruction efforts, raises production costs and forces Palestinian firms out of business.”
Earlier, the World Bank found that Israel’s military blockade has slashed Gaza’s Gross Domestic Product by half.
Unmet farming needs and limited imports have created food shortages. An Israeli rights group that focuses on the freedom of movement, Gisha, said last month that 47 percent of Gazans are food insecure.
Gaza’s coastal position could offset this need with its fishing waters. However, fish, a major source of protein and other nutrients, have also become less available to Gazans as a result of Israeli policies.
During the 1994 Oslo Accords, a 20 nautical mile restriction was imposed off of Gaza’s beach, as well as two “no-go zones” to the north and south. In violation of these agreements, in 2000, Israel imposed a 12 nautical mile limit. In the period following the blockade, Israel has set the fishing zone between three and six nautical miles, the current limit.
These restrictions have markedly impacted food availability and incomes, as some 35,000 Palestinians rely on the fishing industry as part of their livelihood. The Association of International Development Agencies stated that these movement restrictions amount to a loss 1,400 metric tons of catch, estimated at $26 million annually.
Fishing zone restrictions have furthermore reduced sea safety. If fishermen and the children laboring with them, pass outside the small fishing zone, they face the potential of arrest or live fire from Israeli soldiers.
“Fishing is very dangerous. You do not just face the sea, but you also face the Israeli army because they shoot at us,” Abdel-Salam said.
Abdel-Salam told DCIP in his sworn affidavit that he witnesses Israeli forces arresting fishermen and confiscating their boats and nets on a daily basis.
According to Al-Mezan, in the first quarter of 2016 alone, 19 Palestinians were detained, including three children. In the same period, there were 29 recorded cases where Israeli gunboats shot live ammunition toward Palestinian fishermen, wounding five.
"The illegal restrictions placed on Gazan fisherman are contradictory to international law. It takes away a people's right to utilize their own natural resources," said Ayed Abu Eqtaish Accountability Program director at DCIP. "As a result, thousands of Gazan children have had their parents’ livelihoods taken away, and many have been forced to go to work or face hunger."