Israeli settlers regularly employ Palestinian child laborers in exploitative conditions during the planting, harvest and export of agricultural produce on farms inside the occupied West Bank, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on Monday.
"Israel's settlements are profiting from rights abuses against Palestinian children," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at the US-based human rights monitoring group, said, alleging that Israeli authorities were "turn[ing] a blind eye" to the practice.
The 74-page report, entitled "Ripe for Abuse: Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank," is the product of interviews with 38 children, some as young as 11, and 17 adults, five of whom have children working in settlements, in the Jordan Valley between March and July 2014.
The number of children working in these agricultural settlements is believed to be around 1,000, according to the grassroots Palestinian Ma'an Development Center.
It alleges that widespread poverty and lack of opportunities as a result of discriminatory Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank lead to Palestinian children dropping out of school for grueling work, long hours, and exposure to dangerous agricultural chemicals, all while being paid incredibly low wages.
"So what if you get an education, you'll wind up working for the settlements," one child told HRW.
VICE News spoke to Bill van Esveld, the author and lead researcher of the report, about his experience in investigating alleged child labor in Israeli settlements. "What was striking about the research was to meet all these kids from the Jordan Valley who had no alternative but to drop out of school to do dangerous work for so little pay," he said.
They are often paid 60 shekels ($15) a day, far under Israel's minimum wage of 23 shekels ($5.76) per hour for adults and between 16 and 18 shekels ($4.01 and $4.50) per hour for minors, who for most forms of work must be aged at least 15. Some children took home as little as 50 shekels per day ($12.52), sometimes with deductions for transportation and lodging, a small amount considering the value of the land they work.
The World Bank estimates that the Jordan Valley, which comprises the eastern 28.8 percent of the occupied West Bank, could yield an annual production of agricultural goods worth up to $1 billion for the Palestinian economy. The British humanitarian organization Oxfam believes that the restricted area has the potential to be "the Palestinian bread basket."
However, there's a catch. The Oslo Accords, which were meant to lead to a Palestinian state, separated the West Bank into three areas: A, B, and C. Area A is governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is also in charge of security. In area B, the PA controls civil matters while the Israel Defense Forces directly control security.
Area C is completely under the control of Israel, and this is the area in which the fertile Jordan Valley sits. 50 percent of its land is allocated solely for the use of around 10,000 settlers, 13 percent of the population of the Jordan Valley, on 37 Jewish-only settlements that are illegal under international law. A further 44 percent is reserved for the Israeli military and Israeli natural reserves. The approximately 65,000 Palestinians living there are left with a mere six percent of the Jordan Valley. Palestinians there are largely agrarian, but have limited access to water, further harming agriculture, and farmers face great difficulties in exporting their produce.
"Area C is one of the biggest problems that Palestinian people face," Hamza Zbeidat, the Ma'an Development Center project coordinator in the Jordan Valley, told VICE News in an interview. "Palestinians there aren't allowed to use water from the River Jordan. They aren't even allowed to dig holes to collect rainwater," he said, referring to Israeli Defense Force restrictions on Palestinians digging wells in the occupied territories.
Zbeidat has spent years working in the Jordan Valley, documenting rights abuses against Palestinian workers in the area. He says that the conditions are often unacceptable. "They work very hard. If they work in the Jordan Valley in the summer, harvesting crops inside a greenhouse, it's burning up," Zbeidat remarked, talking about the temperatures in the area, which are usually much warmer than surrounding areas. "The greenhouse makes it even hotter."
These were not the only hazardous conditions child laborers faced, he said, adding that they often worked between 11 and 12 hours a day, carried heavy loads for long distances, and suffered extensive exposure to chemicals.
The HRW report goes further, saying that in addition, neither children nor adult workers are given pay slips, afforded worker's compensation or insurance, and have no legal recourse if they are wronged. If they were to ask to be paid the Israeli minimum wage to which they are entitled, they would immediately be fired, it says.
All of these conditions are outlawed by Israeli labor law, which applies to any Palestinian working in an Israeli settlement. This decision was made by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2007, based on a case brought forward by Kav LaOved, a group that advocates for workers' rights in Israel. The decision took a total of 12 years, and it was finally decided that anyone working in a settlement falls under the jurisdiction of Israeli labor laws, not Jordanian labor laws —as was the case put forth by settlers — which do not offer similar protections.
Hannah Zohar, founder of Kav LaOved, told VICE News: "Nobody is enforcing this ruling or these laws in the settlements in the occupied territories."
Zohar said she believes that the fault ultimately lands at the door of the Israeli government. "Israeli law should be applied in the settlements, but the government takes a hands-off approach. They say they don't have the authorization to inspect these settlement businesses, but that's just an excuse. We all know they have the authorization to do whatever they want," she said, adding that she believes Israeli law should apply to everyone working for an Israeli business.
Van Esveld, the main researcher of the report, did not come upon a single worker who had ever seen an Israeli labor inspector.
Another troubling aspect for the HRW researcher was that these products are still being exported to the United States and European Union. "It's bad enough that nations and businesses trade with settlements, but giving them preferential treatment, as in the case of the United States, is astonishing."
Both have expressed a desire to end child labor globally, with the EU referring to it as one of the main contributors to the circle of poverty experienced in many developing nations.
The EU has taken steps towards labeling products from Israeli settlements, but it remains the responsibility of the European importers to read barcodes in order to discern which goods are from such outposts.
The US still imports these products as if they were coming directly from Israel, as outlined under the US/Israel Free Trade Agreement. In 2004, Israel and the US further liberalized trade on agricultural products.
"The fact that this preferential treatment is allotted to businesses that engage in child labor is shocking," van Esveld continued.
The human rights researcher stressed that report should not be interpreted as suggesting that if child labor in settlements were to stop, the outposts would suddenly be legitimate. "Human rights abuses such as child labor are a logical symptom of the lawlessness involving settlements," he said.
If international businesses were to stop trading with these settlements, "then they would dry up, and maybe Palestinians would have access to their land. This would do a lot to battle poverty, and end rights abuses in the Jordan Valley," van Esveld concluded.
Israeli authorities declined VICE News' request for comment.
Follow Creede Newton on Twitter: @creedenewton