BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Now entering its fourth week, a strike launched by Palestinian teachers has morphed into a major crisis for the Palestinian Authority as frustrations towards the political body continue to mount.
The number of Palestinian teachers on strike has risen to at least 35,000, leaving over one million Palestinian students in the occupied West Bank out of school.
Teachers have slammed the PA’s failure to deliver on promises made following a 2013 strike, and head of the PLO teachers’ union Ahmad Suhweil submitted his resignation by popular demand as teachers called for new representation in negotiations.
The PA has said it is legally bound to negotiate solely with the union, and criticisms initially made by teachers in February have since mushroomed in reaction to the PA’s harsh response to strikers, with some informally calling for Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s resignation.
While Hamdallah said this week that “people have the right to express their opinion” as part of the democratic process, the PM threatened administrative and legal procedures against teachers if they did not resume work, and PA security forces have prevented teachers from demonstrating.
Rights organizations have denounced the PA and security forces for their efforts to prevent strikers from protesting, as well as for its detention of teachers.
The strike and subsequent fallout marks one of the largest challenges to the PA in recent years, and is exposing longstanding internal rifts between the PA and the public.
‘We only want to live in dignity’
Ayed al-Azzeh, a resident of the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, has taught in Palestinian schools for 10 years and now teaches mathematics in the Bedouin community of Raween. He joined the strike when it kicked off in February.
Al-Azzeh told Ma’an that the primary goal of teachers on strike was to receive wages that didn’t force them into poverty.
“We are not looking for a life of luxury, we only want to live in dignity,” al-Azzeh said.
Al-Azzeh said teachers have shown mounting dissatisfaction with the structure of the teachers’ union itself, which he said has failed to address their demands with the PA.
Teachers have appointed leaders in each occupied West Bank district to act as new representatives, but PA officials have refused to negotiate with these representatives on legal grounds.
PA Minister of Education Sabri Saidam did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.
While official statements by PM Hamdallah and other PA leaders have extended gratitude towards teachers for their role in Palestinian society, al-Azzeh said the political body has neglected teachers’ demand for rights.
This perceived neglect has meanwhile been worsened by the use of Palestinian security forces to stifle the strike.
Palestinian security forces stand in front of the Palestinian cabinet headquarters in Ramallah in anticipation of a teacher protest. (MaanImages)
PA security forces stop strikers
A Ramallah resident who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons told Ma’an he believed PA leadership misstepped from day one.
“From the beginning, when over 4,000 teachers came on the first Monday of the strike to the prime minister’s’ office, he refused to talk to them. Why?” the resident asked. “Then you [Hamdallah] put security forces in the face of the teachers, how can you do this?”
When on Feb. 23, 20,000 were expected to turn out for a protest in the center of Ramallah city, outrage set in after strikers were met with armed members of the Palestinian security forces.
PA checkpoints were set up at the entrances to towns and cities across the occupied West Bank prior to demonstrations which forced teachers attempting to reach the protests in private vehicles to turn around or be held for questioning.
Palestinian rights organization Al-Haq told Ma’an they have been collecting affidavits from Palestinian teachers who have been detained or mistreated by PA forces, in addition to documenting closures preceding demonstrations.
Ibrahim Mohammed Azam Asafrah, who has taught history for some 18 years in the Hebron area, told Al-Haq he was taken from his home in the middle of the night by Palestinian security forces two days after he joined the strike.
Asafrah said the forces searched his home and confiscated his computer without a warrant before detaining him overnight in a nearby jail, where he was interrogated by a number of officers on his involvement in the strike.
Other testimonies gathered by Al-Haq reported similar accounts of detention, searches without warrant, and prevention of movement throughout the occupied West Bank.
When asked why it appeared that the PA has taken active steps to prevent teachers from organizing and carrying out the strike, al-Azzeh told Ma’an: “I think it’s fear. Teachers are like a marker for the public satisfaction with the performance of the government.”
“The worry for them [the PA] is the mounting anger and frustration with the performance of the PA. Since this current ‘uprising,’ the PA has been silent, and has not publicly said that Palestinians have a right to defend themselves against the Israeli occupation.”
He went on: “The government has detached itself from the people…and this intensifies the already existing feelings of frustrations among teachers.”
While criticism of the PA has risen since violence increased in the occupied Palestinian territory in October, such remarks have taken form only on social media or in the private sphere, and have yet to find footing in public discourse.
For Palestinians, criticizing the PA is holding a double-edged sword, and corruption within the governing body is self-enforced. For many — the PA is the largest employer in the occupied West Bank — such criticism means losing employment or facing economic repercussions, consequences most choose not to risk amid an economy crushed by the ongoing Israeli occupation.
Al-Azzeh told Ma’an he thinks mounting frustration with PA performance since violence increased six months ago has contributed to the snowballing growth of support for the teachers’ strike.
An ‘opportunity’ to listen to the public
When asked about rising public criticism of PA security forces in general, PA security spokesman Adnan Dmeiri told Ma’an late last month: “In every country in the world, people in that country love to say ‘F*** the police.’”
Dmeiri said above all, the main challenge facing the PA was the Israeli occupation, which hinders the PA and its security forces from carrying out their responsibilities as the governing body.
Al-Azzeh agreed that the decades-long Israeli military occupation and the creation of the PA in efforts to end the conflict is a major factor in determining the limited reach of the PA. Al-Azzeh also said this reasoning only goes so far, and is oft-used by the PA to sidestep accountability for mis-governance that takes place.
“They [PA] say: ‘We don’t have enough resources, we are under occupation.’ If living under occupation is a high price to pay, we should all pay that price equally, not only the teachers,” al-Azzeh told Ma’an, alluding to the large percentage of the PA budget allocated to the security sector.
Al-Azzeh also pointed to statements made by PA officials who he said were trying end the strike by “scaring people into thinking the teachers’ strike is a coup against the government,” spurred on by Hamas or rival Fatah leaders vouching to take over Mahmoud Abbas’ presidency.
Al-Azzeh sees the strike as an opportunity for the PA to put politics aside and to win back respect from the Palestinian public.
“If Hamdallah came out from his ministry office onto the balcony where we were protesting, and said ‘Okay, can anyone representing you come and give your demands, let’s sit and talk,’ this would break the tension.”
“They’ve neglected us. We want our dignity. Our dignity is not equal to 20 or 100 or 1,000 shekels. We just need to be addressed. To be told ‘we value you’ as having a significant role and responsibility in society, and ‘we want to listen to your demands,’ this would solve things.”