Thousands of Palestinian teachers demonstrated yesterday afternoon in cities across the West Bank, marking the start of a third week of strikes. What began as a protest over a bureaucratic 2.5% pay increase in early February has quickly become a wider anti-democratic crackdown against Palestinian society’s beloved and underpaid public servants, teachers.
For a second time in recent days Palestinian Authority police erected checkpoints along routes to the demonstrations, turning back carloads of educators at the security checks. A similar measure was used to prevent teachers from reaching an anti-government protest in Ramallah on February 23 as well.
In addition to the PA officers dispatched to interrupt protests, forces affiliated with the government’s ruling Fatah party have began to attack the protesting teachers as anti-government agents. Masked gunmen from Fatah’s armed-wing released a statement alleging the teachers are agents of Israel, a part of a “conspiracy of four pillars” they accused of stirring up instability that could topple the Palestinian Authority. A member of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades warned, “There are actors within the Palestinians that are serving the interest of Israel in destroying the unity of our government and suffocating any chances of resolution.”
And before teachers were accused of being agents of Israel, they were first charged with being proxies of Hamas.
On February 16, Palestinian police arrested 20 teachers and two school principals during a demonstration in Ramallah, the seat of government in the West Bank. At that time the strike was one week in. Teachers and Palestinian human rights groups decried the jailing, yet Palestinian officials defended the move stating the detained instructors were were affiliates of their rival party, the Islamic group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.
Teachers have uniformly rejected these claims as thinly veiled attempts to malign the validity of their demands for a pay increases. They launched their strike on February 9, 2015 when the 2.5% raise brokered in 2013 during a separate strike, was not paid.
Now more than 2,000 schools in the West Bank open their doors everyday, teachers arrive at their workplaces, some students filter into the classroom, but there is no formal instruction.
There is also no formal union representative leading the teachers in their strike. Teachers asked for the resignation of the former head of the teachers union Ahmad Sahwil after he made an agreement to end the protests at a meeting last week with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and the Minister of Education Sabri Saidam.
Among teachers Sahwil is viewed as aligned with the government. For one, he was appointed to his position by Fatah and not through a union election. He also handed in his resignation to Fatah and not directly to the union.
Anger against Sahwil is strong. Some teachers brought placards to protest him in Ramallah on February 23, the largest anti-government protest held in years. “Sahwil does not represent me,” said one woman’s poster. “He’s a union representative with government ties,” said Jamal Farajallah, an administrator at the Dier Samat school in Hebron.
Farajallah explained many teachers are now attempting to form an alternate syndicate. They have formed city clusters of representatives who are in communication over increasing wages.
“Maybe the new government of teachers are making the difference now,” Farajallah added, noting frustrations were growing against the Palestinian Authority as teachers bore obstacles from both police and their union.
“We were stopped four times from Hebron to here,” Farajallah said of the police checkpoints that prevented many teachers from reaching the demonstration.
When asked how many times Israeli forces stopped his car on the way to the protest, Farajallah chuckled, “well, something different is going on here.”
Before the Sahwil-era teachers were represented in a different syndicate, the public service union, formerly the largest workers’ group in the West Bank. Membership in this organization is now illegal. In 2012, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made belonging to the public service union a punishable offense by executive order. The union thus disbanded and its last chief, Bassam Zakarneh, was briefly jailed. Over the past week Zakarneh was rearrested on unknown charges.
Sahwil states he tried in good-faith to advocate on behalf of Palestine’s educators, however he was compromised by a few bad apples. “We have solved everything with the government, but there are many actors on the ground who want to ruin what we have achieved,” Sahwil said.
“There are many different claims. Perhaps, most of the teachers are right about some of those claims. They are right,” said Sahwil. “But what was done was done incorrectly,” the deposed union representative said of his firing. “The teachers union usually gets its feedback from the ground then carries the issues and demands and complaints to the largest legal representative in the country.”
“However, this time, the teacher and members of the union incited against the union and its leadership for personal and political gains,” Sahwil continued, adding that members of Hamas visited his office and demanded his resign.
He continued, “The situation started to take a political, partisan direction. If you want to set obstacles to any union you cover it with a political cover or dress. This will exhaust the struggle, and hurt it.”
Mashhour Batran, a teacher at Mahmoud Darwish school outside of Hebron, told Mondoweiss part of the difficulty now in reaching an agreement to end the strike is the absence of a representatives the government recognizes to speak on behalf of the teachers.
Batran said, “Teachers are demanding a financial increase estimated to be $150 in addition to administrative requests. The government is not ready to negotiate with the teachers leadership. Because they do not want to legitimize this leadership. Experience has taught us that undemocratic governments do not pay much attention to the demands of the people.”
“In such abnormal circumstances, teachers are the weaker party. The government is capable of incitement in the local community against teachers. I guess this strike will break, and teachers will return to work without achieving any demands,” he said.
With reporting from Derrar Ghannem.