GAZA (Reuters) - A growing number of Palestinian children are roaming the streets of Gaza looking for a meagre wage to help support their families in the impoverished territory.
Instead of going to school, Ahmed, 13, dodges vehicles in one of Gaza City's busiest streets trying desperately to sell candy to motorists on the move.
Working feverishly to peddle his merchandise at the smoky intersection, Ahmed said he cannot afford to slow down.
"I am the bread-winner for my 12-member family," the boy said. "I work every day, all week, and I get about 20 shekels a day. At home, we almost never eat meat, maybe once a month."
Ahmed is not alone. With unemployment topping 60 percent in the crowded strip of land squeezed between Israel and the Mediterranean, hundreds of children like him have taken on the role of providers as most families have little or no income.
The Western freeze on direct aid to the Palestinian government headed by Hamas, an Islamic militant group that has spurned donors' demands to recognise Israel, has only deepened the economic despair in Gaza.
Children sell cigarettes along Gaza's beaches, and some even venture into Jewish settlements Israel demolished before its withdrawal in 2005 to steal scrap metal and earn small change.
Such forays can be dangerous, drawing Israeli fire at times, when youngsters stray into Israeli-designated "no-go" areas along the tightly controlled border.
Ten-year-old Atteya, selling biscuits and lighters at a busy Gaza intersection, said failure is not an option.
"If you are shy, you will not sell what the (supplier) gave you and you may get beaten or fired. Sometimes if you return home without any money you will be beaten by your father," Atteya said.
Palestinian labour law bans children under the age of 15 from working. But lawlessness pervades the Gaza Strip and the prohibition is ignored.
POVERTY BREEDS CRIME
Some children turn to crime.
"Why do I steal? the conditions made me steal," Kahil, 15, said from inside al-Rabeea juvenile detention centre in Gaza City.
"The first thing I stole was an apple," he said, explaining that the path to bigger thefts was a natural progression.
"I was visiting somebody at home and I stole some necklaces from his house. He caught me and handed me to the police and I ended up here," he said, speaking from an institution founded during Egyptian rule in 1958.
Kahil's father had been sick at home and the boy said he had to steal so his nine-member family could eat. "It was both to make a living for my family and to entertain myself," he said.
Officials at the centre said the high level of unemployment in Gaza was a major cause of juvenile delinquency.
Al-Rabeea currently holds 14 boys, all aged between 12 and 18, but the number of detainees has exceeded 30.
The figures are low by Western standards but alarming for residents of the Gaza Strip, a traditional Muslim society where juvenile crime used to be rare although nearly half the 1.5 million inhabitants are under the age of 18.
"Theft is the most recurring crime in light of the economic conditions. Poverty and unemployment are the main reasons for the bad behaviour of the children," said psychologist Nabil Taha, a teacher at the centre.
"Most of the boys' fathers are unemployed, there is no work and there is no food, so they are forced to steal," he said.
Sixteen-year-old Karam was arrested and taken to the centre after police found him in possession of cables belonging to Gaza's electricity company.
"I have a family of 12 people. My father is married to two women and I have stolen to make a living," Karam said.
Taha said the role of the institution was to provide the boys with treatment, rehabilitation and care.
But with summer holidays coming, officials at the centre expect an annual spike in child crime.
"We have been successful with many children who left the institution and never came back, but sadly, some return time after time," Taha said.