By Yousef Al-Helou – Gaza City
The devastation left by the Israeli war on beseiged Gaza means youngsters now make a living by sifting through piles of rubble. Children as young as five collect metal and plastic to sell to scrap dealers. So poor are the families they come from that they miss school in order to provide minimal support for their brothers and sisters. Missing school for even a day before the recent massacres was considered a shame, not going at all due to desperation is in danger of becoming a norm.
Saeed Dardonah, is 14- years old, his family house was destroyed by F16 rockets, during Israel’s 3-week offensive. "look at my hands’, she says showing me the palms that are dusty and covered in cuts ‘I have been looking for copper wires and plastic amongst the rubble of our destroyed house and neighbourhood. I sell what I collect for 6 shekels ($1.50) per kilogram. I have left school to support my family" he said.
Saeed was sitting on the dusty ground next to his devastated house in Ezbet abed Rabboh northern Gaza. His small hands coated with a layer of black dust. He sits with his brother Nael around fire, one he lit himself in order to melt plastic coating copper wires before selling them on to a local scrap merchant. The fumes from such fires are known to release chemical toxins. But there is little time to wonder about the long term consequences of rifling through rubble coated with phosphorous, or breathing in dust that may be radioactive when there is no milk at home for the youngest sibling.
On my way back to Gaza city, I see children scrabbling through rubbish bins; human rodents, forced to live on the detritus of war. This scene is another new post- Gaza onslaught phenomenon.
"Finding old scrap metal, shoes, dirty clothing and plastic has become harder as the residents have no money to buy new products and are then reluctant to throw out even their unusable things" the youngsters told me.
Sultan and Saber abu Khader, aged 13 and 15 have had the responsibility for their families survival thrust upon them. At an age when they should be playing football or studying for exams they express in deadened tones the certainty that they have no future.
"I wish the border crossings would open and the siege lifted, I want to have a decent life and a job," Sultan said.
At their age such pessimism despite the never ending round of attacks and sieges Israel has perpetuated on the region, was until now rare. Yet for half a decade the unemployment level across the Gaza strip has been rising catastrophically.
Today hundreds of thousands of able bodied adult men are suffering the indignity of unemployment. Not by choice, never by choice, for here in Palestine men are proud to work, their large families rely totally on what they can provide. Yet since 2007, 95 per cent of Gaza’s factories have been forced to close due to the siege. Border closures, have meant building projects have ceased, crops cannot be exported, seeds cannot be imported. Farmers are shot at by Israeli snipers when they attempt to tend their fields. It is estimated that 35,000 chickens were slaughtered by Israeli’s aerial and ground attacks in December and January. Recent statistics show that unemployment increased to more than 70 per cent in 2008/9.
Meanwhile, Gaza’s population is one thing above all else- youthful. More than fifty five per cent of the population are under the age of 17. It is safe to say they are not enjoying the rights of their peers in the West: The right to a good standard education, enjoyed in safety; the right to live free from poverty or attack; the right to leave your country of birth and to return to it unhindered, and so on. The most widely understood definition of a concentration camp is this: a penal camp where political prisoners or prisoners of war are confined (usually under harsh conditions); a situation characterized by crowding and extremely harsh conditions. Right now in the Gaza Strip then, 800,000 children are living in the world’s largest concentration camp. A concentration camp created by Israel, approved by Europe and decimated by US-made military weapons.
Israel waged war on Gaza on December 27, 2008. More than 1400 civilians, including more than 400 children were killed. This came after a two year continuous siege which crippled the already impoverished costal enclave. Humanitarian aid is consistently prevented from entering either Eretz crossing or the Rafah border point (policed by Egypt).
– Yousef Al-Helou, a freelance journalist based in Gaza City, you can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org.