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School’s out in West Bank until teachers get their dignity

A nearly month-long teachers’ strike is keeping Palestinian children out of the classroom and challenging the PA

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Palestinian students attend their graduation ceremony at Bir Zeit University, May 18, 2012. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinian students attend their graduation ceremony at Bir Zeit University, May 18, 2012. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Public school teachers in the West Bank are showing up to work, but they are not teaching. For the students who to go to class, the only subject they are likely to learn is civil disobedience.

A West Bank-wide teachers’ strike has now entered its fourth week, leaving hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children out of class.

Teachers must show up to school to avoid punishment from the government, but they refuse to move forward in the curriculum. Students mostly stay home, go to work or roam around outside.

What began as teachers demanding that the government make good on a promise from 2013 to raise their wages about 10% and pay money owed has now morphed into one of largest democratic movements in West Bank history.

‘When publicly employed doctors and engineers recently went on strike, the PA gave in to their demands. But not us. Not for the teachers’

The rallying call of the strike and its accompanying social media campaign has become “dignity for the teachers.”

Samih, 25, an English teacher from Qalqilya, said his peers feel slighted and under-appreciated.

“The teachers are offended by the large increase in salaries for government employees but not for them. When publicly employed doctors and engineers recently went on strike, the PA gave into their demands. But not us. Not for the teachers.”

The PA has said that it could not make good on its promise because financial aid has significantly decreased. Jamal Dajani, a spokesman for Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, told The New York Times that aid dropped from $1.2 billion in 2012 to $700 million in 2015.

Aside for a salary increase, teachers are also demanding that women receive the same benefits as men.

“If a female teacher with a pension dies, her salary will stop,” said Samih. “But a male teacher, if he passes away, the salary will go to his wife, or sons and daughters. So it’s not just about wage increases, there is also gender equality. This is also what we mean by dignity.”

The first week of the strike saw one the largest anti-PA rallies in recent history, with an estimated 20,000 teachers demonstrating in Ramallah on February 16.

PA police responded by detaining 20 teachers and two principals who participated in the strike. But the arrests – a relatively small crackdown – did little to slow the momentum of the movement. Teachers have continued to organize strikes across the West Bank and especially in Ramallah.

The Palestinian news agency Ma’an quoted anonymous sources saying that security forces threatened to punish bus companies and fine taxi drivers for driving teachers to the demonstration. To thwart scheduled protests, PA police began setting up checkpoints around Ramallah to prevent teachers from reaching areas near governmental buildings.

On Monday, thousands of teachers again defied government threats and bypassed police checkpoints in order to protest outside of the Palestinian Parliament in Ramallah.

https://twitter.com/qudsn/status/706811265658855424

“This is a reflection of dissatisfaction with the PA and its leadership,” said Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“It has lasted as long as it has despite the teachers facing the opposition of the official leadership and media, because they sense that the people are with them.”

Thrall recently published an article titled “The End of the Abbas Era,” in which he argued that Palestinians have begun taking matters into their own hands with recent violence because the current PA administration dominated by President Mahmoud Abbas shows little chance of erecting an independent Palestinian state.

But despite the PA’s fragile hold onto power, and the possibility that the popular violence now faced by Israelis could be turned against them, Thrall was surprised to find the rulers of the West Bank still have the confidence to fight the popular strike.

“I thought the PA would be more nervous and would try and find a way to appease one of the largest demonstrations we’ve seen in many years,” he said.

Lacking democratic means, PA scapegoats Hamas

An early agreement between the PLO-appointed teachers’ union and the government was flatly rejected by the striking teachers, who are demanding they be allowed to appoint their own representatives.

On Sunday night, an emergency meeting between the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and teachers failed to produce an agreement. Teachers present at the meeting, according to Ma’an, accused the government-appointed teachers’ union of sabotaging the talks.

The Palestinian public sector was once represented by the Union of Public Employees. Following several organized protests in November 2014, the PA declared the union “an illegal entity with no legal existence,” forcibly disbanding the organization and arresting its president. The International Federation of Workers Education Associations (IFWEA) said in a statement that the move deprived public sector employees in the West Bank from “collective bargaining and any form of dialogue with their employer, the Palestinian government, in view of safeguarding and advancing their rights and interests.”

While Palestinian teachers have blamed the rulers of the West Bank for failing to reach a solution, the PA has claimed from the start of the strike that its political rival in the Gaza Strip, Hamas, was using the teachers’ grievances to sow insurrection.

Head of the Hamas government Ismail Haniyeh (right) and senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed (left) attend a news conference as they announce a reconciliation agreement in Gaza, on April 23, 2014. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Head of the Hamas government Ismail Haniyeh (right) and senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed (left) attend a news conference as they announce a reconciliation agreement in Gaza, on April 23, 2014. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

In a statement published on the PA’s official news network Wafa on Sunday, the spokesperson for the PA’s ruling party, Fatah, accused Hamas of hypocrisy.

While preventing any democratic expression in the Gaza Strip, Hamas was “exploiting the demands of the teachers, and employing the strike for partisan reasons,” Osama al-Qawasmi said.

The Islamist group in control of Gaza has openly supported the strike and has used its strong media presence in the West Bank to heavily criticize the PA’s treatment of its teachers.

While Hamas is clearly happy for the opportunity to attack its political rivals, Thrall believes there is no evidence to back up the claim that the Islamist group is behind the movement.

“I think the movement is a genuine strike by teachers who are generally pissed about how much they are getting paid,” argued Thrall.

R., a 27-year-old English teacher in Nablus who asked to remain anonymous, said he has been teaching for three and a half years and makes 2,200 shekels ($565) a month.

“The prices keep rising but the salaries stay the same. It is only enough to buy food for about two weeks,” he said, laughing. R., who said he never thought the strike was going to last for four weeks, got married six months ago.

Beyond the financial hardships experienced by teachers, Thrall believes that nationalistic despair is moving the cogs under the surface.

“If they felt their leadership was leading toward some collective goal, teachers would be more tolerant of low salaries. If they feel that’s not the case, then it becomes harder to bear the hardships. No one believes in the building of the state anymore.”

AFP contributed to this report

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