Israeli settlement farms in the occupied West Bank are using Palestinian child labor to grow, harvest and pack agricultural produce, much of it for export, Human Rights Watch stated in a report released Monday.The farms pay the children low wages and subject them to dangerous working conditions in violation of international standards.

According to Ma’an News Agency, the 74-page report, ‘Ripe for Abuse: Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank,’ documents that children as young as 11 are working on settlement farms.

The children carry heavy loads, are exposed to high temperatures and hazardous pesticides, and in some cases have to pay themselves for medical treatment for work-related injuries or illness.

‘Israel’s settlements are profiting from rights abuses against Palestinian children,’ said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.

‘Children from communities impoverished by Israel’s discrimination and settlement policies are dropping out of school and taking on dangerous work because they feel they have no alternatives, while Israel turns a blind eye.’

The head of Israel’s settler community in the Jordan Valley dismissed the report.

‘They’ve made up lies. The entire goal of this organisation (HRW) is to sully Israel’s image,’ David Elhayani, himself a former farmer, told AFP.

‘If they’d show me a farmer employing a child, I’d report it to police immediately.’

Human Rights Watch interviewed 38 children and 12 adults who work on seven settlement farms in the Jordan Valley area, which covers about 30 percent of the West Bank and where most large agricultural settlements are located.

The report said that Israel has allocated 86 percent of the land in the Jordan Valley to settlements, and Palestinian poverty rates in the Jordan Valley are among the highest in the West Bank, at 33.5 percent.

The report called on Israel to dismantle the settlements and, in the meantime, prohibit settlers from employing children in accordance with Israel’s obligations under international treaties on children’s rights and labor rights.

‘No alternative’ to support families

Israeli and Palestinian development and labor rights groups estimate that hundreds of children work in Israeli agricultural settlements year-round, and that their numbers increase during peak harvesting times, the report said.

Virtually all the Palestinian children interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they felt they had no alternative but to find work on settlement farms to help support their families.

They said they had suffered nausea and dizziness. Some said they had passed out while working in summer temperatures that frequently exceed 40 degrees Celsius outdoors, and are even higher inside the greenhouses in which many children work.

Other children said they had experienced vomiting, breathing difficulties, sore eyes, and skin rashes after spraying or being exposed to pesticides, including inside enclosed spaces. Some complained of back pain after carrying heavy boxes filled with produce or ‘backpack’ containers of pesticide.

Israeli labor laws prohibit youth from carrying heavy loads, working in high temperatures, and working with hazardous pesticides, but Israel has not applied these laws to protect Palestinian children working in its settlements, the report said.

It added that Israeli authorities rarely inspect working conditions for Palestinians on Israeli settlement farms, and no authority has a clear mandate to enforce regulations.

Children dropping out of school

Of the children interviewed for the report, 33 had dropped out of school and were working full-time on Israeli settlements, and of these, 21 had dropped out before completing the 10 years of basic education that are compulsory under Palestinian as well as Israeli laws.

‘So what if you get an education, you’ll wind up working for the settlements,’ one child said.

Teachers and principals at Palestinian schools in the Jordan Valley said that children who worked part-time on settlements during weekends and after school were often exhausted in class.

Israeli military authorities state that they do not issue work permits for Palestinians under 18 to work in settlements. However, Palestinians do not need Israeli work permits to reach the settlement farms, which are outside the gated areas of settlements that Palestinians need permits to enter, the report said.

All of the children and adults working for the settlement farms whom Human Rights Watch interviewed said they were hired by Palestinian middlemen working for Israeli settlers, were paid in cash, and did not receive pay-slips or have work contracts.

Settlement produce exported abroad

The report said that Israeli settlements export a substantial amount of their produce abroad, including to Europe and the United States.

Although the US Department of Labor maintains and publishes a list of more than 350 products from foreign countries that are produced with the use of forced labor or child labor in other countries, it has not included Israeli settlement products on the list, the report said.

It added that the US continues to grant preferential treatment to Israeli settlement products under the US-Israel Free Trade Agreement, and called on the US to revise the agreement to exclude settlement products.

‘The settlements are the source of daily abuses, including against children,’ Whitson said. ‘Other countries and businesses should not benefit from or support them.’

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