The resurfacing of a 2012 report that 160 children died working in the Gaza tunnels has caused a media frenzy. But Hamas’ use of child labor should come as no surprise. In fact, the true numbers of such fatalities are likely to be higher.
Myer Freimann brought the childhood casualties to national attention with his July 25 article in Tablet Magazine, “Hamas Killed 160 Children to Build Tunnels.” He cites a number from Nicolas Pelham’s “Gaza Tunnel Phenomenon: The Unintended Dynamics of Israel’s Siege,” which appeared in in Journal of Palestine Studies during the summer of 2012.
Pelham’s article describes the extensive tunnel network used to move contraband like drugs and weapons, but also commercial goods, into Gaza from the outside world. In 2008 the tunnel trade was the largest overall employer of youth, and that the money earned during the tunnel work provides support to about ten percent of Gaza’s total population. Pelham writes:
During a police patrol that the author was permitted to accompany in December 2011, nothing was done to impede the use of children in the tunnels, where, much as in Victorian coal mines, they are prized for their nimble bodies. At least 160 children have been killed in the tunnels, according to Hamas officials. Safety controls on imports appear similarly lax, although the [Tunnels Affairs Commission, the Hamas body that regulates the tunnels] insists that a sixteen-man contingent carries out sporadic spot checks.
While Pelham’s may be the first article to provide a number, there was already ample reason to infer that the Gaza tunnels have been endangering Palestinian children en masse. B’Tselem, a pro-Palestinian human rights group based out of Jerusalem, posted a video on their website in January 2009 entitled: “Gaza – an Inside Look: Tunnel Youth 2009.” The website describes the scene as follows:
Most of the workers in the tunnels are youths under age 18, who left school to help support their families. The video provides a short glimpse at the lives of a few of them, who spend their long during their long hours at work amusing themselves, smoking and listening to the popular song “Heroes of the Tunnels” on their cellphones.
The 2012 short documentary, “Gaza: Tunnels to Nowhere,” reinforces the idea that the tunnels are manned primarily by youths. One of the young workers interviewed for the film described his feelings about the tunnels as follows:
Down there, sometimes it’s fun, at other times it’s scary. In reality, one’s always scared down there. Before you go down there, you pray. When you’re down there, you always keep on reciting your last prayers. In case something happens to you, you wish God will be gentle with you. It’s a really dangerous job. We call it ‘graveyard of the living.’ But we can’t find any other jobs, so we work in this business. It’s better than no work.
That such hazardous work often results in death is no secret to Middle Eastern news sources. International Middle East Media Center, notes, “There have been dozens of Palestinians who were killed in numerous accidents in the tunnels, mainly after the tunnels collapse on them, while other were electrocuted by exposed wires.” Drownings and falls should be added to the list of hazards.