JERUSALEM — It's 8 a.m. on a weekday, and work has already begun for many Palestinian children. Boys as young as 10 toil at the produce market here in Hebron.
Nearby, girls sit in a workshop where they sew handicrafts instead of going to school. In Gaza, children are stationed at intersections to try to sell things like gum, lighters, and tissues to motorists and passersby. And at heavily traveled Israeli Army checkpoints throughout the West Bank, children hawk similar wares.
Hebron resident Khamis Hammdi Geet is hauling loads of bananas. Now 16, he's been working since he was 7 or 8, and all the money he earns goes to help support his family.
Khamis stopped going to school during the intifadah, the 1987-93 uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Schools were often closed for long periods of time as Palestinian youths hurled rocks at Israeli troops. Khamis is one of the many who didn't go back.
"If I could, I would return to school, but it's too late for me," he says during a break. He's illiterate, but his family expects him to bring home money since his father is too ill to work.
Social workers say during the period of Israeli rule - from 1967 until the 1993 interim peace accords for Palestinian autonomy - laws on child labor and mandatory education either weren't clear or weren't enforced.
Palestinian policy was based on either Jordanian or Egyptian law. The the legal working age was 12. An Israeli military order raised the age to 14, though it was largely ignored.
Now that Palestinians have taken over much of the West Bank and Gaza, some see an opportunity to put a clamp on child labor. But advocates of a stricter policy worry that the culture is too permissive of children working, especially in times of economic hardship.
"The society is really tolerant of the child in the street. It doesn't really shock people," says Mervat Rishmawi, a researcher at Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group.
Through her work for the International Labor Organization (ILO), she has found child labor to be a problem in poor countries throughout the Middle East. Children selling goods on corners or working in markets are a common sight from neighboring Jordan to remote Yemen.
Some Palestinians are hoping for better, but little has been done so far.
"There is no program at all designed to crack down on child labor. It is an accepted fact that because of the situation in the country, some of them are helping their families survive," Ms. Rishmawi says.
Instead, the ILO and the Palestinian Ministry of Labor are trying to keep children out of the more hazardous industries, targeting child labor in factories, construction, and bakeries, where children are exposed to heat and hot liquids.
At a crowded, windowless sneaker factory in Hebron, laborers say that until recently many of their co-workers were young children. "Three months ago the Palestinian Authority came and took everyone to the school," foreman Falah Abu Shuker says unabashedly. Workers here say children are also employed at a mattress factory in town. But on a visit to the fenced-in grounds, the manager refused entry to visitors and said none of his workers are under 18.
A Palestinian labor law currently being drafted would leave the working age at 14, even though the law also says children have to complete at least the 10th grade, keeping students in school until about 16. The new law would raise to 18 the mandatory age for hazardous jobs only.
Some jobs straddle the line. Rami el-Din, 14, works full time in an auto-body shop, fixing cars.
Though that is considered somewhat unsafe, his father is his boss and the authorities don't question the father's decision to put his son to work. Rushdie el-Din says his son missed too much school during the intifadah to go back. "This is better than letting him stay in the street, so I prefer that he stay with me," he says.
If Rami had a choice, he says he'd rather have stayed in school. "A lot of my friends left school, too, but also many stayed," he says while warming a pair of grease-coated hands over a coal stove on a unusually cold winter day. But he quickly adds, "I don't think the ones who stayed in school are better than the ones who work."
In addition to economic depression and family complicity, field workers also blame the child-labor problem on an inadequate school system. Most schools have no special education, some teachers still use corporal punishment, and old Jordanian textbooks are decades out of date.
In some areas, schools are so overcrowded because of soaring birth rates that children go to school in shifts; some leave school by noon to start work.
So far, there are no truant officers. Otherwise, it would be hard to imagine how a 10-year-old like Mahmoud Abu Ghazla could be stacking oranges every day on Hebron's main street. He says he's been to school today, but it's 11 a.m. and his hands are already gray from working, so it's unlikely.
"I don't work every day," he says, but the $30 he can make in a day helps feed a family of 13. His 16-year-old brother, who has been working for two years, has a job at the fruit stand across the road.
"The goal should be removing younger children from work ... and giving their families top priority for aid," Rishmawi says. But she adds that eliminating child labor in this economic climate isn't realistic.
And some employers are getting their money's worth. "Like in the rest of the world, their wages are less than the wages of other workers. Children work hard and produce a lot."