Instead of going to school, Walid and Ibrahim spend hours each day rummaging through houses destroyed in Gaza’s wars in search of scrap to raise a few shekels for their families.
They were once good students but Walid Maaruf, 11, and Ibrahim Ghaben, 12, had to quit school and earn a living when their fathers lost their jobs.
Israel and the Hamas terror group have fought three wars in the Gaza Strip since 2008, including a devastating 50-day conflict in 2014 in the tiny Mediterranean territory.
Residents have lived under a punitive Israeli blockade imposed 10 years ago — which Israel says is necessary to prevent arms from reaching Hamas, an Islamist terror group committed to destroying the Jewish state — and their options are further limited by Egypt, which has largely kept its border with Gaza closed since 2013.
Nearly half the enclave’s 1.9 million inhabitants live under the poverty line, with 80 percent surviving on humanitarian aid.
Unemployment has risen dramatically to reach around 45% — one of the highest in the world — forcing many children to become bread-winners.
On Sunday, the International Labor Organization marks World Day Against Child Labor, an initiative that has seen the number of child laborers drop to 168 million from 246 million in 2000.
But in Gaza the trend has been upward.
According to Palestinian estimates, child labor has doubled over the past five years, with 9,700 children aged between 10 and 17 now working in the enclave.
“My father is unemployed, he used to gather stones and scrap metal… but now I work,” said Ibrahim who earns about 20 shekels ($5) a day — toiling six to 12 hours — to feed his family of nine.
The boy, who looks much older than his age, said he and his father used to transport their find on a donkey-drawn cart “but the donkey died.”
All day long, often under a searing sun or howling wind, boys like Walid and Ibrahim scour flashpoint Beit Lahiya — near the border fence with Israel in northern Gaza — for scrap to sell to recycling firms.
The area is attractive because of potential finds of lead from Israeli munitions, but also carries the risk of drawing gunfire from border guards who are wary of militant attacks.
“Most of the children who work do so in neighborhoods along the border fence, and these are the poorest areas,” said psychologist Aida Kassab from the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.
“Sometimes these children are only five and yet they are forced to do a job which is not appropriate for their age, their physical or psychological state,” said Kassab.
Akram Saeed, 14, said he spent years gathering scrap but now he wants out and would like to “learn a useful skill” to improve the lot of his four siblings and parents.
Help came in the form of a Swiss children’s relief agency, Terre des Hommes, which helps families send their children back to school or to attend vocational courses.
“The phenomenon of children who work reflects the economic and social situation of the Gaza Strip,” said Khitam Abu Hamad, who represents the NGO in Gaza.
“There is no job market in Gaza,” she said.
Palestinian law bans children under 15 from working but “it is rarely applied,” said Iyad Abu Hujayr of the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution.
He said enforcement has been hampered by divisions between Hamas, which rules Gaza, and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
These divisions have also allowed abuse by some employers who often force children to work a 12-hour day for as little as 20 shekels, he said.
And the situation is far from improving, said Hyam al-Jarjawi, who is in charge of children’s affairs at the Hamas-run ministry of social affairs.
With each war, “there is more poverty and the more the number of child laborers increases”, she said.
Israeli officials have blamed Hamas rule and its continued aggressive stance towards Israel as the reasons for Gaza’s continued economic woes. They have said the terror group’s constant efforts to rebuild its terror infrastructure force them to severely limit the passage of construction materials into the territory.
Hamas this week test-fired 32 rockets as it further develops its military resources. It has also been rebuilding its attack tunnel network for a future conflict with Israel. in recent weeks, Israel has exposed two such tunnels dug by Hamas under the border and into Israel.