Elei Sinai - Edrey - archive
The ruins of the evacuated settlement Elei Sinai, where Gazan teens salvage cement and gravel. Photo by Limor Edrey
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In the course of three months this summer Israeli soldiers shot and wounded 10 Palestinian teenagers who collect building materials from demolished structures in the former Israeli settlements and the Erez industrial zone in the northern Gaza Strip, dozens or hundreds of meters from the border. Palestinians believe the shootings are aimed at keeping people away from these areas, but despite the great risk dozens of nearby residents, many of them minors, continue to come in order to collect bits of cement and gravel from inside the buildings that were destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces around the time of the 2005 disengagement, and sell them to contractors and factories in the Strip.

According to Gisha, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that monitors the effects of the blockade of the Gaza Strip, the quantity of building materials that Israel has permitted into the Strip since a partial lifting of the closure was announced, in June, is around 4 percent of what is needed. The cement that is imported from Egypt via the tunnels is insufficient, and too expensive, to fill the gap.

The practice of salvaging usable building materials highlights two of Gaza's major, intractable problems: on one hand, the chronic shortage of building materials due to the closure, which Israel intensified after July 2007, and the large number of buildings destroyed during Operation Cast Lead; on the other hand, Gaza's high unemployment and poverty rates. More than half of the available workforce in the Strip is unemployed, and more than 80 percent of Gazan families are dependent on direct aid of food and money.

Defence for Children International-Palestine Section collected statements from the 10 teens shot by the IDF between May 23 and August 25. The youngest is 13 years, the oldest 17.

Most are from the northern Strip - Beit Hanun, Beit Lahia, Jabalya - while others live in Gaza City.

Every day dozens of people come to the ruins of the industrial zone and the settlements, such as Elei Sinai, in wagons drawn by donkeys or horses. One of the teens, who was shot on August 25, told Defence for Children that in recent months soldiers also shot and killed one of the donkeys and three of the horses.

Most of the children tell of a father who is unemployed. Some were among the thousands of Gazans who worked in Israel up until 2006, when their work permits were revoked. The father of one of the teens was forced to close his store as a result of Israel's ban on the entry of goods it did not define as "humanitarian" into the Strip. After the death, about two years ago, of a 14-year-old shooting victim identified as "N.," the teen dropped out of school to help support his family. That is the story of all these teens, dropping out and going out to work. They all said in their statements that they are afraid to go back to collecting gravel. Some have difficulty walking or carrying heavy loads as a result of their injuries.

Some of the teens sold vegetables in the streets of Gaza City, earning only about NIS 20 or NIS 30 per day, before hearing from neighbors or acquaintances that one could make NIS 40 or more from collecting gravel.

They would leave their homes at around 4:30 or 5 A.M. Each of the 150 to 200 people working in the ruins had sacks, shovels and carts. They often noticed soldiers observing them, either on the sand dunes, sometimes lying down and aiming their rifles at them, or on the watchtowers. One of the injured boys reported seeing one soldier firing a machine gun while the one next to him looked through binoculars. The teens said the soldiers fired into the air when anyone came too close to the border, and sometimes fired tear-gas canisters at them.

"M.," 16: "In the beginning I was afraid to go to the place because soldiers in the watch towers sometimes opened fire at us or in the air. We would run away and come back when the shooting stopped. Sometimes we didn't come back at all. He learned from his fellow workers to watch for birds flying away from the watchtowers. It was a sign to start running, as it meant soldiers were climbing into the towers and the shooting would soon begin.

June 23 began quietly in the Erez industrial zone, as M. tells it. He estimates that he was working about 500 meters from the border.

"At around 8:30 A.M, I was collecting gravel when I heard children around me shouting, 'Run, they're going to shoot from the tower.' I looked toward the tower and saw many pigeons flying away, so I quickly started to run away ... I felt something very hot tearing my side apart ...." M. remembers being frightened by the sound of the shooting and calling out for help. Another teen, a relative of his, grabbed his hand and told him to run. "I started running," M. continued, "but I felt really tired and sat down on the ground feeling the pain grow in my stomach ..." M. lost consciousness. Several men picked him up, placed him on a cart and then took him by car to a hospital, where he remained for three days.

The majority of the teens received injuries to the extremities, most in the lower leg but some in an arm. All say they were between 50 and 800 meters from the border when they were shot.

In the past two years the IDF has widened the buffer zone, the area along the Gazan side of the border fence that Palestinians are prohibited from entering. Palestinians note that in thousands of pamphlets that the IDF dropped into the Strip they were instructed to remain at least 300 meters from the border. But people have been shot at a distance of even one, or one and a half kilometers from the border. According to United Nations figures, since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 at least 25 Gazans, six of them children, have been killed by Israeli gunfire on the buffer zone. Another 146 have been wounded. This policy of widening the buffer zone is particularly harmful to farming in the Gaza Strip, since about 35 percent of the territory's arable land is within the prohibited zone.

The IDF Spokesperson said in a response: "In recent years there have been many incidents of terror activity against IDF forces operating near the security fence and of attempts to infiltrate into Israeli territory to carry out attacks against Israeli citizens, often while pretending to be civilians." The statement cited the explosion near the border, on May 25, of a donkey cart loaded with explosives and driven by a Palestinian boy.

"In light of the fear of such terror activity near the border, in mid-2008 the IDF defined the swath of territory 300 meters from the border fence as no-go area for the Palestinian population and delivered a request to this effect by distributing Arabic-language pamphlets in the Gaza Strip. It must also be emphasized that the IDF endeavors to avoid injury to innocent civilians and will examine every complaint submitted in regard to the conduct of our forces, in accordance with the policy that is in effect and that has been reiterated on numerous occasions.