x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

No end in sight for teachers' strike in Gaza

For Fatah and Hamas, the teachers' strike, which saw a chaotic start to the Palestinian school year is just another battle in their war of attrition.

Students at the Ahmed Shawqi School for Girls in Gaza city speak about the teachers' strike.
Students at the Ahmed Shawqi School for Girls in Gaza city speak about the teachers' strike.

GAZA CITY // For students and teachers, it is a question of obligations versus rights. But for Fatah and Hamas, the teachers' strike, which saw a chaotic start to the Palestinian school year in Gaza and trainee teachers being drafted en masse, is just another battle in their war of attrition. More than 50 per cent of Gaza's teachers have been on strike since the beginning of the school year with the full support of the Teachers' Union in Ramallah. A similar strike is also afflicting the health sector, and while the two were called for different reasons, they are seen in Gaza as part of the same attempt by Fatah-led unions in the West Bank to disrupt Gazan life. Whatever the original causes, no one now pretends the strikes are not political, and officials, union activists and students all agree that there will be no solution until Fatah and Hamas agree to a reconciliation. The teachers' strike was called just before the school year started on Aug 24 to protest against what the union said was the political motive behind the rotation of about 40 head teachers in Gaza to other public sector schools. But Gaza's Hamas government vehemently rejected the accusation, saying the rotation was normal policy and dismissed the strike as a politically motivated attempt by the Fatah-run union to undermine its rule in Gaza. The ministry of education in the Gaza Strip acted swiftly to hire 3,000 unemployed teachers, mostly straight out of college, to plug the gap. Today, most schools are operating at normal levels, even if students complain that the quality of teaching has suffered. There is no sign of reconciliation. On Oct 21, the union in Ramallah decided to extend the strike until the end of the year. Jamil Shehadeh, the secretary general of the Teachers' Union, said he held Hamas "completely responsible". In return, the ministry in Gaza City said that the longer the strike goes on, the less likely it will be that, should the teachers return, they would be reinstated in their previous positions. "We were afraid of the disruption to the education sector in the first week of the strike," said Khaled Radi, a spokesperson for the ministry in Gaza. "But now we have replacements, schools are back to normal and the situation is calm. Personally I feel those who went on strike lost their qualification to teach." But their replacements have also taken some of the burden off striking teachers, said Nabil Safadi, a head teacher and union representative in the Gaza Strip. "I am a father. I don't like my children to go to a school with no teachers. But if the ministry says all is well, then there is no need for me to feel guilty [about striking]. I can concentrate on fighting for my rights." Mr Safadi was adamant that the strike was necessary to fend off what he said was "cronyism" in the education sector. "There were three kinds of rotation [made by the ministry] in the beginning of August. Some were standard rotations. Some were political appointments and some were personal favours." Mr Safadi said no one thought the strike would go on this long and conceded that so far it had "not achieved anything". But he accused Hamas of being unwilling to compromise and of reneging on an apparent agreement to end the strike in its first days, leaving the union with little choice but to continue. The strike, meanwhile, would last, he said, until an independent committee could be established that would investigate all claims of "cronyism and other injustices" and when striking teachers would return to the jobs they had before the rotation. Hamas is unwilling to yield to the strikers' demands to reinstate teachers because that would lend credence to the central claims of the union in calling the strike. And with striking teachers continuing to be paid from Ramallah, Hamas has been quick to level the accusation that the strike was politically motivated from the beginning. "Everyone has the right to strike," Mr Radi said. "But this was not a strike; it was political and aimed only at disrupting the education sector in Gaza to undermine Hamas." The Hamas government in Gaza is sensitive to accusations of favouritism in official appointments, an issue traditionally associated with Fatah rule and against which the movement successfully campaigned when it ran for parliamentary elections. Yet the accusations are increasing in frequency. Hasan Barghouti, the director of the Ramallah-based Democracy and Workers' Rights Centre, said both factions had to shoulder responsibility for the situation. "If it is easy to arrest and shoot people," said Mr Barghouti with reference to the practices of both the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, "then it is easy not to pay wages or uphold workers' rights." Students at the Ahmed Shawqi School for Girls in Gaza City showed little sympathy for striking teachers. The school of about 400 students saw 12 of 16 teachers walk out at the beginning of the strike. Four have since returned and a further 12 new teachers have been drafted in. "Teachers have an obligation to us," said Shayma Samira, 14. "I feel very angry at this strike. We are the ones who lose." The sentiment was echoed by Shayma's classmates. "I am very grateful to the teachers who have come in. Without them we would have lost a whole term," said Insheera Abed, 15. Where several students in this ninth grade laid the blame squarely at the door of what they called "the big boss" in the West Bank, Insheera was less certain. "I blame both Fatah and Hamas. If there was national unity, this wouldn't have happened." That at least was one point of agreement between Mr Radi and Mr Safadi, who both said reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas would be necessary to end the strike. Both looked ahead with hope to the scheduled talks in Cairo in less than two weeks, where Palestinian factions are hoping to work out a compromise to form a unity government. For his part, Mr Barghouti was sceptical. "I don't think the problem can be solved in the short term. In addition to the domestic political dimension, there is the financial dimension and budgetary restraints. Then there is the occupation. In all this, no one has time for social demands such as workers' rights." okarmi@thenational.ae