RAMALLAH, West Bank - Deep in the mechanic's pit, 12-year-old Jihad Robin found refuge, secretly smoking cigarettes on a break from his job in a car repair shop.
He left school at age 9 when teachers told him that since he couldn't read, he would have to fall back two grades. His parents, unable to make ends meet, forced him to go to work.
The West Bank has high unemployment, with the Palestinian economy still struggling from fighting with Israel and restrictions on travel because of security checkpoints that Israel says are needed to stop suicide bombers.
So stories like Jihad's are common. Palestinian government regulations set the minimum working age at 15, but the law is not enforced. The most recent available figures show that about 35,000 children aged 15 or younger worked full-time in 2006, up from 18,000 in 2004, said Mamoun Eid, an official in the Palestinian Labor Ministry.
Still, West Bankers say the problem is less acute than in some poor countries, because Palestinian parents put a high premium on keeping their children in school.
Jihad works nine hours a day, six days a week at the garage outside the city of Ramallah. He lifts batteries and heavy parts, and sometimes fixes electric systems.
"I prefer the younger ones," said the boss, who would only give his name as Abu Nidal in case the publicity provoked a crackdown on hiring minors. "They are smarter and they learn most quickly. And they cost less." Jihad's daily wage of 30 shekels ($9) is a third of what his adult co-workers make.
In a nearby workshop, blacksmith Tayseer Qayem employs 15-year-old Mansour Farhat, who left school in third grade. Qayem, 29, said he opposes child labor in principle, and that he hired Mansour to keep him off the streets and out of trouble.
Like many of the children who work in the garages, Jihad hopes one day to own his own. That's what his employer did, starting work at age 10 and working his way up.
Jihad's bigger dream is to become a pilot and "fly to New York," he says. "Sometimes I get so tired, it's so hot and the stuff I carry is so heavy."
He steals or mooches cigarettes for his breaks, trying not to be seen. "If they catch me, they will take me to my father who will beat me for smoking," he said. After work, he goes home to play hide-and-seek with neighborhood friends.
Other children in the Ramallah area work collecting scrap metal, scavenging through garbage, delivering groceries to homes and peddling gum, tissues and pens to motorists at intersections.
In another Ramallah auto shop, 16-year-old Awwad Awwad fixed the wheels of an orange Daewoo. He has had the job for two years. His face smeared with grease, he says the job exhausts him, but adds proudly: "I feel like a man, not like a child."