GAZA CITY — Public sector teachers in the occupied Palestinian territories began a strike on Saturday to protest against unpaid wages. Timed to concur with the first day of the new academic year, the strike in Gaza and the West Bank has left hundreds of thousands of children without classes to go to.
“The strike in government schools on the first day of the academic year succeeded by 80 percent,” said Jameel Shahadah, Secretary-General of the Palestinian Teacher’s Union. “By announcing a strike on the first day of the academic year, we wanted to shock the Palestinian government and the Arab and international community [to show them] that the Palestinian people’s right to education is now threatened due to the embargo.”
An international trade embargo has been imposed on the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) since Hamas won democratic elections in February. Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation by Western nations and Israel because it refuses to recognise Israel as a state and refuses to renounce violence.
The trade embargo has deprived the PNA of millions of dollars-worth of funds and aid. As a result, it has been unable to pay any of its 165,000 employees for six months.
In oPt’s government schools, there are some 40,000 teachers and around 1,250,000 students, according to Shahadah. In Gaza, refugees make up the majority of the population. While some 60,000 children attend government-run schools there, 194,000 go to schools run by the United Nations Relief Works Association (UNRWA), which provides essential services to refugees.
John Ging, UNRWA’s Gaza director, said all the children in UNRWA schools would be taught as normal because the agency’s 6,000 teaching staff were receiving their wages as normal.
“We teach about 70 per cent of the kids here in Gaza. But the outlook for the other 30 per cent looks bleak,” Ging told IRIN.
A health workers strike already began on 29 August again in protest of non-paid salaries. However, the strike beginning on Saturday includes all government employees. Teachers are the most numerous among them.
“We are going to sit together and we are not going to teach,” said English teacher Inas Abu Samra, 33, a member of the Gaza Teachers’ Union. “This is how we are going to express our objections for the conditions we are living under.”
Abu Samra said that at the start of the embargo, Palestinians had come together in support of their government. With no wages, they have survived on food coupons and aid. Now, they have lost patience with the PNA and are demanding a solution to their predicament.
“We have decided enough is enough,” said Abu Samra, adding that the vast majority of government teachers supported the strike. “The PNA promised us there would be changes in our economic situation. What has happened? It has got much worse.”
The European Union has attempted to appease employees with payments of US $340 each, but to no avail.
The Hamas-led Palestinian government has urged its employees not to strike, saying that tensions among Palestinians only serve the interests of Israel.
“They try this to stop us striking,” said Abu Samra. “We will take the money - but we will strike anyway. This is a democratic government and they came to power by democratic means. They must understand that striking is a face of democracy.”
In a Friday press conference, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called on teachers and students to go to schools at the start of the new academic year. “We are going through a difficult time, and should be united,” he said.
Haniyeh is also the leader of Hamas, which blames its political opponents for using the strike for its own goals. For this reason, some Hamas supporters have tried to sabotage the strikes by assaulting teachers, said Shahadah of the teachers’ union.
However, Shahadah rejected the idea that the strike is political. He said it is more about demanding teachers’ rights.
English teacher Abu Samra said she wasn’t interested in the politics. “This strike will put pressure on all the political parties to get a solution. The children support us - they understand we are doing it for a better life for everyone,” she said.
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