The scene moved some bystanders to tears. About 200 spirited youngsters marched through the streets of Rafah, Gaza alongside a procession of homemade toy corpses on wooden stretchers. Some onlookers raised their eyebrows as they read messages on the little demonstrators’ placards. "Tunnel owners: let our children live their childhoods!" said one Arabic sign. "Tunnel owners: save our children from death!" said another.
This was Rafah’s first ever demonstration against child labour in the Gaza-Egypt smuggling tunnels. Local opinion remains sharply divided about whether the estimated 6000 young boys working in the tunnels should be forcibly prevented from earning income for their families. Some insist that the Israeli blockade of Gaza has forced this decision upon a destructed, defeated community while the organisers of Thursday’s protest argue that children’s innocence should never be sacrificed — no matter how desperate the circumstances.
"The families, the government, the schools and the human rights organisations should all work together to stop the work of children in the tunnels," Eman Abu Quta, a Palestinian social worker who co-organised the demonstration, told newmatilda.com. "In other parts of the world, children go to playgrounds, do sports, sing, dance — they have childhoods. Here, our children go underground."
Abu Quta counsels traumatised children at the Rachel Corrie Centre, named after the 23-year-old American activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003. The centre is operated by the Union of Health Work Committees, a Palestinian NGO.
The demonstration came at a tense time for tunnel owners, who say they were pressured by Egyptian soldiers to temporarily stop their operations on Wednesday. The closures came after Israel claimed it had reliable intelligence that militants were planning to kidnap Israeli tourists in Egypt and hide them in Gaza, using the tunnels as a thoroughfare.
While the precise number is impossible to pinpoint, Gazan economic analysts estimate that more than 1000 tunnels are currently in operation along the 11-kilometre border. The tunnels typically bring medicine, food, fuel, appliances, building materials, car parts and any commodities banned under Israel’s economic blockade, which is aimed at isolating Hamas. Some tunnels are even large enough for cars. The World Bank reports that about 80 per cent of Gaza’s imports now come through the tunnels. This illegal economic lifeline has also become a source of revenue for the Hamas government, which charges tunnel owners an annual licence fee of 10,000 shekels (AU$2898).
Before Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, thousands of Palestinian homes were razed by Israeli bulldozers on suspicion that they covered the entrances to tunnels. At that time, the tunnels were primarily used to smuggle drugs, luxury items and weapons, including explosives for suicide bombers and supplies for unguided rockets launched into civilian areas of southern Israel.
Since then, Israel and Egypt have allowed the tunnel industry to proliferate. Today, the white tents marking the tunnel entrances openly invite adults and children to risk their lives. The tunnel owners used to ask the permission of children’s parents. Now they don’t even bother.
"We’ve all stopped doing this because we know the families will allow it," said tunnel owner Haysam, who also said he would never permit his own child to work in the tunnels. Haysam described Thursday’s demonstration as "pointless" and rejected the argument that he should only hire adults. "If I stopped allowing it, the kids would just go to other tunnels," he reasoned. Haysam added that it’s much easier to employ children who are more energetic, more eager to work for cheap and less afraid of the danger.
And the danger is real.
In 2009 alone, 64 workers died in tunnel accidents, including 13 children, according to the Al Dameer Association for Human Rights, a Palestinian NGO. Of these, 33 died when tunnels collapsed on top of them, 22 died from inhaling toxic gases, and nine died from electrocution. Since 2006, at least seven people have perished in Israeli airstrikes on the tunnels, and more than 250 have sustained injuries as a result of working there, according to the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights.
A soft-spoken, illiterate 18-year-old named Mohammed left school to work in the tunnels. Last year an electric cable severed four fingers on his left hand. Two months after this harrowing ordeal, Mohammed went back to the tunnel because he "needed to support his family and save money for his wedding". Mohammed explained that his father died of a heart attack eight years ago, leaving him and his older brother the only breadwinners in their immediate family.
Mohammed’s mother, Um Anees, emphasised that she would be unable to support her six children without the income that her two boys earn in the tunnels. Since the family’s home was destroyed by Israel in 2005, they have lived in a rented apartment that costs AU$202 per month. The family receives AU$115 per month assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, as well as donations of staple foods. "The demonstrators don’t want our kids to work in the tunnels — OK, fine." said Um Anees. "But bring them different work. I fear for my children every day … When the border opens, God willing, it will be a happy day."
Meanwhile, the border remains closed. Egyptian soldiers patrol the tunnel entrances on the other side, but they mainly seek to stop the flow of weapons into Gaza and the travel of Palestinian militants into Egypt. Typically, the soldiers turn a blind eye to the constant flow of supplies into Gaza, but things could change after Egypt completes its construction of a 115-foot subterranean barrier later this year. Some argue that this barrier will destroy the tunnel industry, while others, including tunnel owner Abu Wadeya, claim the barrier will spawn the creation of "deeper, more dangerous tunnels".
The Hamas government gave its approval for Thursday’s demonstration, but has not intervened to prevent children working in the tunnels. In a July 2009 press release, the Al Dameer Association for Human Rights stopped short of demanding that the government stop child labour in the tunnels. Instead, they vaguely called on Hamas to "take immediate steps to end the high number of deaths and injuries as a result of work in the tunnels". They also asked the international community to "intervene urgently to lift the Israeli-imposed siege on the Gaza Strip".
Parents who had lost children in the tunnels were invited to attend the silent demonstration, but declined. In a sad irony, a 12-year-old named Hamadi who is himself a tunnel worker grabbed a placard and joined in on the excitement. He told newmatilda.com that his family "used to be poor" but "now they are middle class" because of the work he and his brothers do in the tunnels. Hamadi was "a little scared" when he started last year, "but now [he]is used to it". He enjoys the songs that the tunnel boys sing while they work, including one that is sung at the end of each day to celebrate their safe return.