Future in Flux, Laws in Limbo, Children at Work

Palestinian kids pushed into adult jobs by political reality. Israel Lets West Bank Children, Not Adults, Into Jerusalem.

When an Arab youth plowed a car into a crowded Jewish market here last month, killing an elderly man and wounding others, the first assumption made by many was that it was a terrorist attack.

Instead, it turned out that the 15-year-old Palestinian boy from the West Bank had been working full-time at Israel's open-air Mahane Yehuda market.

Police determined that Rami Radwan had accidentally crashed the car his employer had asked him to use, even though Rami was underage and did not know how to drive.

The incident exposed a persistent and growing problem unknown to some and ignored by others: Arab children forgoing their education to do manual labor for wages that are low by Israeli standards, but are enough to support impoverished Palestinian families.

Rami, who was uninjured in the car crash, lives in the Kalandia refugee camp outside of Jerusalem. He has been the major breadwinner for his family of six since he started working a year-and-a-half ago.

One thing that encourages child labor is the ease with which children can enter Israel from the Palestinian territories, while their older brothers - men age 16 to 28 - are barred by Israeli authorities from entry to the West Bank or Gaza.

In the wake of Muslim suicide bombing attacks on Jews over the last few years, Israel has severely curtailed work permits and periodically prevented entry from the West Bank and Gaza entirely.

Working papers are reserved for older, married men since all the suicide assailants fit a similar profile: young single men with little to lose.

But children are not issued any kind of identification papers until they reach age 16 and are thus able to pass through Israeli Army checkpoints without being questioned. According to a recent United Nations report, declining economic conditions for Palestinians have led more children to seek work, both in the self-rule territories and in Israel.

A UNICEF study last year found that 40 percent of working male children surveyed had unemployed fathers, and another 30 percent had fathers whose incomes were declining.

Although no truly accurate figures exist on child labor, since much of it is illegal and goes unreported, a 1995 UN survey found 11.5 percent of boys age 12 to 16 were working.

Rami says he was one of many boys who made the trek from Kalandia to Jerusalem six days a week, leaving at 6 a.m. and coming home as late as 10 p.m. But he says he liked helping to support his family - bringing home about $270 a week - and got along well with his employer before the accident.

His mother speaks matter-of-factly about the family's decision to send Rami to work. Two older brothers over 20 aren't working, and her husband is in poor health.

"Rami made enough money to support the whole family. When the father is sick and the younger men can't get work, what can we do?" asks Aisha Radwan, sitting in her home in Kalandia, a 50-year-old refugee camp that now looks more like a poor village. "We were thinking of doing this temporarily, and when conditions improve, he'll go back to school, God willing."

But after missing two years of class, Rami doesn't show much interest in going back. "I want to go back to work," says the boy, who is sitting at home until his case blows over so he can look for work again.

Charges against his Israeli employer are still under consideration by the district attorney. But otherwise, things at the market have returned to normal.

On a recent morning, a knot of boys are leaning against a metal barrier near the back entrance to the market, waiting for merchants or delivery men to hire them for piecemeal jobs that might earn them a couple dollars.

While some boys have a regular employer, others constitute a fluid labor pool for short stints of work whenever someone needs them to move some crates of vegetables, stack some fruit, or clean up. Some reportedly have more dangerous jobs cutting up fish or produce.

Ibrahim Imtor, 13, walks here every day with other boys from East Jerusalem. Although his area is not subject to the closure limits, the neighborhood still provides a steady stream of children looking for work.

The oldest of 10 children, Ibrahim says that his income is essential to his family. Looking more boyish than adolescent, he says that he's been working for a year.

"We need the money, for food and clothes," he says. "What's in school? There's no money there." Other boys hanging around tell similar stories.

Many merchants say they don't encouraging Arab children to work and agree they ought to be in school. But the merchants say the matter is out of their hands. Fines can be as high as $600 but are rarely enforced.

"It's not our problem. We don't go bringing them in here, but the parents keep sending them to work," says Moshe Levy, an Israeli who sells fruit. Mr. Levy employs boys to do odd jobs, not to work all day, and says their work isn't strenuous.

He and others say inspectors from the Ministry of Labor come about once a month, pick the boys up, and send them home. The same boys usually come back the next day.

Philip Veerman, who heads the Israel section of Defense for Children International, says that the ministry has increased the number of inspectors over the past few years, but enforcement is still lax.

Children working in some cities shack up somewhere for the week and return home on the weekend.

One boy walking through the market on a recent morning, asked by a reporter if he worked there, mistook the question for being offered a job.

"Yes," he replies. "Where do you want me to go?"

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