Next to a big tree near the Kafr Qara intersection in Wadi Ara, battered objects are scattered on the ground: empty food cans, a pair of worn-out shoes and lots of cardboard boxes. According to activists, this is only one of the places West Bank children sleep after coming to Israel to beg to help their families.
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For years, dozens of Palestinian children have plied busy Israeli intersections, mainly in the Arab Triangle area and in Galilee villages, begging for handouts or selling things such as car deodorizers, toys and bags of hyssop. They come alone or with the help of “contractors,” sometimes stay for a month and are exposed to violence, alcohol and drugs. Usually they’re boys, from 7-year-olds to teenagers.
Several attempts to address the problem have failed, and this month there was another try: MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (Kulanu), head of the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child, and MK Zouheir Bahloul (Zionist Union) met with officials in the Palestinian Authority’s social affairs ministry to discuss the subject. This was a first for cooperation of this kind.
Shasha-Biton said the Palestinian officials pledged to bring up the issue in the cabinet and form a team to work with Israel’s Civil Administration and welfare authorities.
Badran Badran, from the village of Ein al-Sahla in Wadi Ara near Haifa, has firsthand knowledge of the problem. For nine years he has observed children from a family living near Tul Karm and has made a documentary on the phenomenon, “Pennies.” The film is now being screened in an abridged version at cinematheques; a longer version is due out in the coming months.
“The father contacts employers until he finds one who suits him and the child. He sends the boy with an Israeli driver,” Badran says, adding that at checkpoints the soldiers don’t usually ask about children.
The trip costs about 600 shekels ($158) a head. After the children arrive, the employer briefs them, teaches them phrases to urge drivers to give money, and sends them to the intersection.
Badran says the most common phrases are “My father is a shahid [martyr] and "My family is poor,” and the simplest is “Help me.” The child is at the intersection for at least 12 hours.
The food is meager: a sandwich, one container of sour cream and some tuna at best. According to Badran, the child “earns no less than 250 shekels a day,” but most of the money doesn’t go to the child or his family.
At the end of the day the “contractor” takes the money and frisks the child. A quarter goes to the parents, the rest to the contractor. They leave the agorot – the pennies – to the children.
For some it’s simply a business
A minority of the children at the intersections aren’t actually children but young women walking around with babies. Some of the babies are rented only for the purpose of begging, activists say.
The children stay in Israel for as long as a month. If they don’t sleep in the woods or in ditches below a highway, they sleep at construction sites or in a mosque, though they’re usually chased from there. It’s no surprise that most of the kids come from poor families with many children, though not all.
“There are children who really don’t have money for food, there are children who have a nicer house than yours, with a car and a swimming pool, and for the families it’s a business for all intents and purposes,” Badran says.
The poorest children are naturally the most vulnerable. In addition to the violence, alcohol and drugs there are more obvious risks – such as bad weather and the possibility of being hit by a car.
But there’s worse. For example, in May 2015 a 7-year-old boy who was begging in Wadi Ara and was beaten, apparently by his employer, was taken to the hospital by police.
Badran says there is violence among the children too. “There are always quarrels about the intersections; the contractors fight among themselves and the children are the victims,” he says. “A bigger boy will be dominant.”
The police say they make some contribution. “The police invest efforts to prosecute the parents and the employers who send the minors to the streets to beg,” the police said in a statement.
“Because in most cases these are minors who are residents of the PA, who are very young (under 12), there are often difficulties in interrogating them and in incriminating their operators. The police are prepared at any time to cooperate with the welfare organizations and the Civil Administration in order to handle the matter more thoroughly.”
When visiting the intersections in the north, it’s very difficult to convince the children to talk. They’re trained to run away whenever the security forces stop by, or when someone asks too many questions. Even when they answer, they don’t always tell the truth. Badran says the “contractors,” who are usually in charge of four or five kids, stand near the intersection and watch their charges.
“For over a decade we’ve been warning about the phenomenon and calling on the relevant groups to act to save the lives of these children,” says attorney Carmit Pollack-Cohen, the legal adviser of the National Council for the Child.
“The recommendations drawn up by an interministerial committee weren’t implemented, and a pilot program for handling the problem wasn’t carried out. In this sad situation, it’s no wonder that in 2016 we still find these minors on the highway alone without protection. The time has come to stop talking and start doing.”
The pilot program and recommendations were already crafted in 2011 and included broad cooperation among several groups. Shasha-Biton, the Kulanu MK, says the main reason the pilot program languished was a lack of cooperation with the PA. “Today the police and army bring them back, and an hour later they’re at the intersection again,” she says.
Abed Salima, the director of the Youth Advancement Department in East Jerusalem, says that at the end of 2005 he was charged with taking care of the children plying highways in East Jerusalem, including those who weren’t Israeli residents. During the first two years of the project, he located 120 children at intersections, 70 percent of them residents of the PA. Since then every year the group finds more children – sometimes 15 a year, sometimes over 30 – mainly during the summer vacation.
He says several groups are cooperating to tackle the problem. “They come twice a week, eat, drink, have a group meeting and study Arabic, Hebrew and math. The objective is to send them back to school or find them a job.”
Salima says he has helped parents with Israeli ID cards (East Jerusalemites) find work, and has turned to nonprofit groups to help West Bank residents the same way. Meanwhile, there are the concerns about what these children will grow up to be.
“[Begging] encourages crime, drug use and terror,” activist Arij Nasra says. Badran agrees. “A child whose childhood has been taken from him will be a cruel child,” he says.
In his film, one can see how a child who was sent to Israel to beg when he was 8 became his little brother’s boss at the intersection a few years later. He says the older brother, already an adult, has done time in a Palestinian prison and faces trial in Israel.
“I agree that the PA must take responsibility and take care of these children, but Israel also has a responsibility to take care of a nation under occupation,” Nasra says.
Badran gives an example: Before the separation barrier was built, the father of the family he has observed worked in Netanya and “made 3,000 shekels a month. He has 12 children. Suddenly he had no work, there’s a fence, and you have to provide food.”
According to Bahloul, the Zionist Union MK, “Every time they close [the separation barrier], more people will go out to look for a way survive, to find ways to bypass the fence. What’s a fence?”
As he puts it, “We rely on these things too much. We have to achieve a dialogue between the PA and Israel to find solutions not only in security arrangements but in a shared life. We’re neighbors and will remain neighbors, with or without fences.”