How Palestinian Teachers Became the People's Heroes

The pedagogues’ strike demonstrates once again the beauty of a public that organizes and fights for its rights and attempts to correct an injustice.

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Palestinian teachers demonstrating in Ramallah, February 2016.
Palestinian teachers demonstrating in Ramallah, February 2016.Credit: Anadolu Agency
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The strike by Palestinian teachers is the most important and moving process taking place within Palestinian society in the West Bank today. It is overcoming the geographical isolation and mental distances that exist between Palestinian enclaves, as well as blocking the tide of social atomization that has been enhanced by the elimination of any political horizon.

One of the clearest signs of the lack of social cohesion is the “lone-wolf” intifada. The teachers’ actions are based on a heritage of collective struggles, both national and trade unionist, while simultaneously rejuvenating this legacy. They show yet again the power and beauty inherent in a group of people that unites and fights for its rights and to redress an injustice.

Teachers young and old, religious and secular, male and female, traditional, politically affiliated or those who distance themselves from any party – all are working together as partners. Each has his or her own personal story of dispossession or oppression: one is from a refugee camp; another is from a village on whose lands some settlement is living the good life. One man was a prisoner, another woman was wounded by gunfire at a rally during the first intifada, and another lost a brother to the same Israeli weapons. In short, this is the people at its best: distressed and dignified.

This is why support for the teachers is so widespread, despite efforts by the Palestinian Authority and its security agencies to intimidate, split them and minimize the significance of the strike.

The teachers’ protest is revitalizing democratic processes and concepts (such as free elections, representation, changing leadership, freedom of assembly and organization) in a society bent under the yoke of one leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, and in which democratic principles and institutions have been silenced.

A temporary teachers’ coordination committee was elected to replace the leaders of the official teachers’ union, which is subordinate to the Palestine Liberation Organization. It was appointed in a shadowy process and its loyalty to Fatah and Abbas supersedes its loyalty to the teachers. The PLO has not been a liberation movement for a long time, but its name is exploited as a sacred cow in order to block change. In the name of past glories and the sanctity of the PLO, the government refuses to deal with the coordination committee elected by the teachers.

The teachers’ justified and modest wage demands – Why don’t they have seniority levels to determine salaries like other public sector workers? Why is their base pay so low? Why is the group responsible for educating children so shortchanged? – are directed at the illogical logic of the Oslo-ist PA. In other words, against excessive allocations to security agencies – the darlings of the United States, Europe and Israel.

‘Security’ first, then education

In 2015, the PA’s revenues totalled 11.85 billion shekels (about $3 billion). While teacher salaries in government-funded schools totalled 2.141 billion shekels, salaries to security agency personnel totalled 3.271 billion shekels. Running expenses at the Palestinian Education Ministry were 258 million shekels, while security forces’ running expenses reached 300 million shekels. Figures for 2016 are still unavailable, but, as usual, education lags behind “security.”

It was Yasser Arafat who started the building of an inflated security apparatus – in terms of numbers of agencies, people employed and budgets allotted to them, even though it is not the external enemy that they were trained to face. Through high ranks, prestige and advancement, Fatah activists were rewarded for years of resistance against the Israeli occupier. For other young people – graduates of the first intifada whose education was disrupted – joining the police or security forces was a substitute for unemployment benefits. After all, the heavy hand of Israel over the Palestinian economy has always limited the creation of new jobs. But inflating the security agencies was a way of establishing a large social strata that directly owed its livelihood and loyalty to the leader and ruling party.

After some of these agencies and their employees contributed to the militarization of the second intifada (encouraged by Arafat), donor countries and Israel forced Palestinian security bodies to undertake a reform. Indeed, there was a need to restore the personal security of Palestinian civilians, who faced armed gangs pretending to be freedom fighters.

Also, in light of the poverty and concerns about crime caused by socioeconomic gaps, there was a greater need for a strong police force and private security agencies. However, the imposed reform was geared mainly at tightening internal policing and surveillance. These assignments and agencies protect the top echelons of the PA and the socioeconomic circles surrounding them, whose salaries, profits and way of life seem like science fiction to most Palestinians.

This is a group of people that has, despite its patriotic declarations, gotten used to the status quo set by Oslo – namely, the Palestinian enclaves reality, the political and geographical rift and the disappearance of East Jerusalem. This is a societal layer whose immediate interests hinder the forging of a comprehensive strategy against a violent Israeli regime that constantly escalates its hostile acts.

The teachers’ strike rejects the logic of this inflated allocation of funds to security agencies, and their sanctification. This rejection is also expanding the ripples of critical analysis, regardless of the strike’s final outcome. It encourages a debate on the status of donor countries that regard themselves as democratic, but which are strengthening an authoritarian Palestinian regime in order to preserve a status quo in which only the Israeli occupation benefits.

Criticism of that kind has been heard before in academic and public debates and through some independent media outlets. But the teachers aren’t just talking, they’re taking action.

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