Gaza teachers trapped between Fatah and Hamas

A teachers strike leaves children outside the classroom. (Mohammed Omer/IPS)

GAZA CITY (IPS) - A strike call has trapped thousands of teachers between Fatah unions and a Hamas government.

The strike in Gaza called by the Palestine Teachers’ Union — a non-elected body supported by the government of Palestian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank — continues into its third week.

Of the Palestinian territories, the Gaza Strip is ruled by the Hamas government and the West Bank by the Fatah Party led by Abbas.

Teachers last went on strike a year ago because of Israeli and Western sanctions that choked funds as a punishment for takeover of the Gaza administration by Hamas, after it won the election earlier in 2006. But this strike has brought one set of Palestinians against another.

Teachers in Gaza say they were ordered by the Ramallah-based PA to stay home or have their salaries withheld, and even face dismissal. And at the same time, the Hamas government threatened to sack striking teachers. While Hamas controls the administration of Gaza, the PA pays the salaries.

“I was informed by an official that I had been dismissed for not supporting the strike,” Mussa al-Astal, a social studies teacher at a secondary school in Khan Younis, a city located in the south of Gaza Strip, told IPS. Astal says he also found his name listed on a Fatah-affiliated website.

Palestinian minister for the media Riad al-Malki in Ramallah denied the allegation. “We did not call for a strike, and there will be no cutting off of salaries for Gaza’s employees.” But many teachers have found that salaries have not been paid into their banks.

Several PA backed unions are working now against the Hamas government. Hamas has immediately called for new teachers to substitute those on strike, but has not found many with the necessary qualifications and experience.

Jameel Shehada, general secretary of the Teachers’ Union, said the strike had been called to protest against “the actions Hamas took against the teachers,” including the transfer of many teachers in order to appoint Hamas supporters in their place. Deputy minister for education in Gaza Mohamed Abu Shoqeir denies this. “The transfer of teachers was an administrative issue, enforced after we saw that just 16 percent students succeeded in some secondary schools last year.”

Fatima Zaqzouq, a school head in Khan Younis, says the transfer of teachers “was not a well thought-out and rational decision. It served only political interests. It’s the students and the people who lose out.” Half the teachers in her school were absent, she said, frightened by the threat of salary cuts.

The teachers strike in Gaza has hit the opening of the school year. The strike has affected all 282 government-run schools in the Gaza Strip, and about 300,000 students. The 213 schools run by the United Nations, and their 197,000 students, are not affected.

But despite the strike, students’ attendance has been close to 100 percent, even if studies are well short. “The first day, we had just half a day in school, and half of the teachers were away,” said 16-year-old student Isra al-Najjar. “We are not happy with this strike.”

Hamas-affiliated police have called many teachers to police stations, and some were forced to go to work, according to the independent Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR).

PCHR says the PA threat of salary cuts is illegal, and serves the interests of Fatah rather than the demands of employees. The move also raises questions whether the international money coming in is for the needs of teachers or the games of political parties, it says.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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