Despite long hours and the dangers of working around heavy machinery, Nael is considered lucky in the poverty-ridden Gaza Strip. If he does well at learning the trade, the seventh-grader will likely leave school to work full-time to feed his family. "I want to help my father," the boy says, his few words drowned out by the sound of pounding.
Child labour is on the rise in Gaza, and in the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory. According to the 2004 Palestinian Child Rights Law, children below the age of 15 are barred from working. Still, hunger and need drive families to allow their children to abandon schooling.
Gaza’s borders remain largely closed to the passage of people, and the entry and exit of goods is severely restricted. Six months after Israel’s "Cast Lead" operation, restrictions on imports are making it impossible for Gazans to rebuild their lives. According to the International Red Cross (ICRC) report on Gaza, published in June 2009, only 2,662 truckloads of goods entered Gaza from Israel in May 2009, a decrease of almost 80 percent compared to the 11,392 truckloads allowed in during April 2007, which is prior to Hamas takeover of the territory in June 2007.
In Its June 2009 report, ICRC warned that the closure of Gaza has pushed unemployment to the rate of 44 per cent in April this year and caused a dramatic increase in poverty. Today more than 70 per cent of Gazans live in poverty, with an income of less than $250 a month for a family of up to nine.
The 20 shekels (equivalent to $5) a week Nael earns at the body shop is not enough to feed his family, he says. But his father, who used to work in Israel, has been unemployed for years. Nael’s success at this difficult job is his family’s only hope.
These trends are having an impact on Palestinian society. Palestinian literacy rates, particularly for females, remain among the highest in the Arab world. Nevertheless, learning achievement is plummeting and basic enrolment has dropped from 96.8 per cent in 2000–2001 to 91.2 per cent in 2006–2007. In 2008, only 19.7 per cent of 16,000 sixth-graders in Gaza passed standardized tests in Arabic, English, mathematics and science, compared with around 50 per cent of their peers in Nablus and Jenin. At least 30 per cent of adolescents do not enrol in secondary school.
UNICEF seeks to stem this tide by supporting child-friendly learning and quality education in Gaza. By the end of June, UNICEF had distributed 21 school tents; 520 School-in-a-Box kits benefiting up to 41,000 children; 394 recreation kits benefiting 30,000 children; 367 math and science kits benefiting up to 34,000 children; almost 100,000 notebooks; 44,000 remedial folders for students in grades one to three; almost 2,000 boxes of student stationary benefiting 80,000 students and stationary items for 2,000 teachers at 253 governmental schools.
"I am good in school," says Nael. He likes religion class, and wishes he could study at al-Azhar University. He isn’t afraid of the heavy machines at work, but, Nael says, "I wish that I had money so that I could stay in school."