Politics & Policy

Child Labor Deaths In Hamas Tunnels Are No Surprise

Palestinian youth have long been dying underground for jihad.

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.

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Media reports of deaths in Gaza tunnels include the following incidents:

On April 24, 2009, a 22-year-old man was electrocuted in one of the Gaza tunnels while rigging power cables for lights.

On April 2, 2012 a 19-year-old from Rafah, Egypt died after falling into one of the tunnels in southern Gaza. A one-year-old baby met the same fate a month earlier.

On Feb. 25, 2013, a 41-year-old construction worker named Bassem Khader and two of his colleagues went missing in one of tunnels during heavy rain and never returned.

One of Khader’s relatives said that the fire department was busy on the day of the accident and unconcerned by news of another tunnel accident – even though eleven people were involved. Locals refer to the tunnel work as “the trade of death.” Both pieces of information suggest that tunnel fatalities are common.

Media reports like these proliferate, but probably more tunnel deaths have occurred than have been reported. All these accidents occurred in the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, not the offensive tunnels that go into Israel, of which Israeli Defense Forces have uncovered more than 30. Palestinians have special reasons to keep these tunnels, and whatever mishaps occur in them, secret from the Israelis and the world.

Few organizations even attempt to provide overall figures for tunnel fatalities. One exception is the pro-Palestinian Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. A Feb. 23, 2013 electrocution brings their total number of tunnel fatalities since 2006 to 237, along with 599 injuries. The Center reports that only 13 of the fatalities were children, a suspiciously low figure given that children are widely reported that a majority of the workers are adolescents. 

Whatever the true number, Palestinians and their supporters will blame Israeli restrictions on Gaza, which includes a naval blockade of Gaza that has been in place since Hamas’s 2006 election victory. Israelis contend that the blockade of Gaza, and the strict border policies, are necessary security measures to prevent Hamas from acquiring more weaponry, such as the rockets that Iron Dome routinely intercepts.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado and a National Review intern. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

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