"It’s tiring," says 15-year-old Ibrahim*, deep lines running across his forehead. "But there is no alternative." Only a teenager, Ibrahim has been working full-time for three years already.
The eldest son in a family of ten children, he lives in the Palestinian village Al-Fayasil in the occupied Jordan Valley, and is forced to work in the nearby Israeli settlement Tomer to help support his siblings. "I work from 6 am to 1 pm," he told IPS. "And I get 70 shekels (18 dollars) per day."
Al-Fasayil residents say that over a dozen youth from the village, all under the age of 18, are currently working in Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley. It is estimated that between 500-1,000 minors travel from other villages and cities throughout the West Bank to work in the area.
Most child labourers in the Jordan Valley make between 50-70 NIS per day (13-18 dollars), and are employed to pick, wash and package fruits and vegetables grown in local Israeli agricultural settlements. They work long hours in difficult weather conditions throughout the winter and summer months, and receive no benefits or insurance against injuries.
"There are so few options in the Jordan Valley. Due to Israeli restrictions that are in place on economic and agricultural development, there’s nothing. Palestinians can either stay at home all day or work in a settlement and be able to provide for their families," explained Christopher Whitman, advocacy coordinator at Ma’an Development Centre, a Palestinian development and empowerment organisation based in Ramallah.
Whitman told IPS that while Israel must apply the same labour laws enforced inside Israel proper to the West Bank territory it occupies, including the Jordan Valley, it fails to ensure that Palestinian labourers working in Israeli settlements get paid the Israeli minimum wage, or receive healthcare, sick days off and other employment rights.
"Israel has to follow the same laws as would apply in Israel. If you had Jewish-Israeli, Ashkenazi children working in settlements doing manual labour, there would be an upheaval in Israel against it," Whitman said.
"If they’re under 18, they’re only allowed to work a certain amount of hours in certain conditions. They’re not supposed to be doing manual labour. Their rights need to be protected."
Almost 95 percent of Jordan Valley is designated as Area C, which is under full Israeli military and civil control. Approximately 65,000 Palestinians, 15,000 Palestinian-Bedouin and 9,400 Israeli settlers currently live in Jordan Valley, and the area counts 37 Israeli settlements, including seven outposts that are illegal even under Israeli law.
According to Israeli human rights group BTselem, "Israel has instituted in this area a regime that intensively exploits its resources, to an extent greater than elsewhere in the West Bank, and which demonstrates its intention: de facto annexation of the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea area to the State of Israel."
A major component of this policy is the restrictions placed on Palestinian construction, as Palestinians can build in only five percent of the Jordan Valley. Homes, schools and virtually all other structures are built without permits, and these structures are therefore nearly all subject to Israeli demolition orders.
Restrictions on building schools have had a particularly devastating impact on child development in Jordan Valley.
"A high number of Palestinian children are denied their basic right to education, or are forced to travel many kilometres by foot over dangerous terrain to attend school," a Ma’an report, titled ‘Parallel Realities: Israeli Settlements and Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley’ found.
"Approximately 10,000 children living in Area C started the 2011/12 school year learning in tents, caravans, or tin shacks which lack protection from the heat and cold. Furthermore, nearly a third of Area C schools lack adequate water and sanitation facilities. In addition, at least 23 schools serving 2,250 children in Area C have pending stop-work or demolition orders," the report continued.
For Al-Fasayil resident Fatima*, the mother of seven children, extreme poverty and few educational and job opportunities have left her concerned for the future of her family.
"My son was smart, but had to stop (school) to help his father," Fatima told IPS, about her eldest son, 15- year-old Khalid*. Khalid stopped going to school after completing the eighth grade, and was forced into working in a nearby Israeli settlement because his father is elderly and can no longer work to support the family.
"I hope that one day he can learn a trade, and I hope that my younger children can continue studying," she said. "I’m afraid. It’s difficult."