Police are planning to arrest the parents and employers of some 30 children from Rahat who have been working in Negev greenhouses for nearly four months instead of attending school, police officials said yesterday.
The children, aged 8-15, are all from the same Bedouin tribe and were sent to work by their parents to help support their families, police said.
The principal who reported the truancy to the Education Ministry said he received death threats yesterday warning him not to cooperate with the police.
"This is nothing less than child trafficking," said Yitzhak Kadman, director of the National Council for the Child. "We received phone calls yesterday that indicate the phenomenon might be wider than we thought, and that many people in the education system and nearby moshavim knew about it, but preferred to look the other way."
Police said that in addition to the parents and employers, they are also planning to arrest other members of the tribe responsible for sending the children to work.
The Education Ministry is calling on the city of Rahat to take immediate action and use the available legal means to make sure the students attend school regularly.
"This is a very grave matter," one member of the Abu Midgam tribe said. "I see these kids going to work on organized transport, vans, and my heart aches."
The children were working in the greenhouses and packaging plants of Moshav Sharsheret, and their paychecks were sent directly to the parents, police said.
The National Council for the Child recently sent the Be'er Sheva police a letter providing details of the underage employment that said the children have been leaving home early in the morning and returning late at night, attending school every few days in an effort to allay suspicion.
An early indication came some three months ago, when the mother of one of the children approached the principal of Al-Razhala elementary school.
"My son's father won't let him go to school," she told the principal. "I want my son to go and study, but his father keeps sending him to work."
The principal reported the situation to the Rahat municipality education department and to the social workers in the welfare department. The social workers began an investigation and found that some 30 children were working instead of going to school.
Rahat Mayor Faiz Abu Sahiban, a former principal, said yesterday the affair was "worrying and disturbing." He said the families involved were large and extremely poor, and need the extra income. Abu Sahiban said he would invite the parents to a meeting with the school's legal adviser, who would explain to them that sending their children to work was a criminal offense, and that they should send the children back to school.
"Don't think for a moment this is the only case in Rahat where children in elementary and high school go to work instead of going to school," the mayor said. "It's true this isn't a regular, systematic thing, but given the harsh financial conditions of many of Rahat's residents, a lot of them send their kids to work."
Only 45 percent of students in Rahat, one of Israel's poorest cities, pass their high school matriculation exams Rahat high school students pass matriculation exams, and unemployment in the city is close to 20 percent.
Education Ministry officials said yesterday they handled the situation properly, and accused municipal officials of failing to deal with the matter quickly.
The ministry officials said that even though initial reports came through as early as mid-February, the municipality was in no rush to take care of the matter.
In late March, the city council decided to begin prosecuting parents for violating the law requiring children to attend school, but virtually nothing has been done since then. Social workers, teachers and the principal have visited the children's homes and spoken to their parents, to no avail, the ministry officials said.
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