Hasib, from Ramallah, has been a teacher for 27 years. His basic salary is 2,400 shekels ($616.50), which, together with seniority increments, comes to 3,600 shekels a month. His younger brother, who works in the Palestinian Preventive Security Force, is paid 4,700 shekels a month. Unlike Hasib, he doesn’t have a BA. Like thousands of other teachers, and defying an official ban, Hasib has a second job, working every afternoon in an office. Other teachers supplement their income by working in bakeries, falafel stands and as cabdrivers.
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The Palestinian teachers’ protest campaign entered its fourth week last week, and the demand for democratic representation is growing stronger. The Palestinian Authority leadership refuses to negotiate with the teachers’ elected representatives. Some 700,000 students – 87,000 of whom are preparing for their matriculation exams – are the strike’s main losers.
At the end of last week, the committee representing the striking teachers accepted a solution proposed by a joint committee of parliamentary factions and various NGOs. Under the proposal, the teachers would resume work immediately, while the government pays its debts to the teachers within three months and raises the basic salary by 70 percent over a period of three years.
Until now, the PA has insisted that the teachers resume work before discussing their demands. However, the teachers are tired of the government’s promises, delays and excuses, and remain undeterred even by the numerous Palestinian fatalities by Israeli forces, arrests and military raids on towns and villages.
The teachers are demanding a raise in their basic wage, increments for seniority and promotion like other public sector workers, as well as equal retirement conditions for women and democratic elections to the teachers’ general union.
Some say the renewed protest was sparked by the announcement, a few months ago, that the government promoted some 180 senior civil servants and raised the monthly wages of Palestinian VIP escorts by 400-600 shekels.
Judging from the PA’s reaction so far, it appears that the strike threatens a number of its governance principles. Its legislative council has been paralyzed since 2007, and there is no supervision over the executive authority. Fatah is dominant in all government institutions (including the trade unions); despite its crumbling as a political movement, one man makes all the decisions and sets the policy: President Mahmoud Abbas.
The strike has actually created dynamics of democratization and cooperation among protesting political and civilian groups, and renewed public criticism of the budget and excessive size of the security forces.
Education Minister Sabri Saidam said this week that some 70 percent of the teachers have resumed teaching. The teachers’ representatives deny this, saying most teachers are still striking. A poll published last Thursday shows that most of the public (84 percent) believes the strike is justified.
Abbas remained silent until last week. But on Tuesday he made several remarks about the teachers in a series of meetings with Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah leaders. He praised the teachers for their patriotic work, dignity and importance, but demanded that they return to work immediately.
Speculation was rife last week about the security forces’ intention to quash the teachers’ protest and demonstrations. So far, the Palestinian police haven’t prevented the teachers from demonstrating in various West Bank cities, even without obtaining approval. Public support for the teachers is too strong for them to try and prevent it. However, in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, a threatening message was just conveyed to the teachers. A group of masked men calling themselves “Shuhada al-Aqsa” and “Fatah Hawks” held a press conference on Tuesday. They spoke of “conspiracies hatched by enemies of the Palestinian people” and warned that they would strike at those who want to harm Abbas and the PA as they had struck traitors and collaborators in the past. The link they made between “traitors” and strikers was clear.
Security personnel – most identified with Abbas’ authoritarian rule – are believed to be behind the threatening announcement.
Many Fatah members, though, support the strikers. Two who dared express their support openly were summoned for police questioning. Bassam Zakarneh, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council who was also chairman of the civil servants’ union until it was dismantled, has gone “underground” after security forces looked for him at his home. And Najat Abu Baker, a member of the Fatah faction in the Legislative Council, was summoned for questioning two weeks ago at the Prosecutor General’s office after saying in a television interview that she had alleged evidence of corruption.
She claimed a senior minister has been charging people money for water from a renovated well. “Water is a national resource,” she told the press. The minister said the well was on his family’s private land and accused her of libel. She believes the summons is a violation of her parliamentary immunity. “With the council paralyzed, we have no choice but to go to the media,” she said.
Instead of going to the Prosecutor General’s office, she took shelter in the Legislative Council headquarters in Ramallah and hasn’t left for nearly two weeks. An endless stream of visitors has come to support her, and all the factions, including Hamas, have demonstrated in the yard on her behalf.
Abu Baker and others are convinced the order to question and arrest her stems from two additional reasons – one being that she supports the teachers. The other is that she was photographed in Cairo a few months ago with Mohammed Dahlan, the former Fatah leader in Gaza who fell from Abbas’ grace.
Last Tuesday, Hasib was among the hundreds of protesting teachers near the building where Abu Baker is holed up. Large anti-riot forces were deployed on both sides of Khalil al-Wazir Street, preventing the teachers from approaching the Education Ministry or the street’s government offices. So the protesters marched toward Manara Square in the center of Ramallah. Old and young, women and men, religious and secular, left wingers and conservatives, Fatah and Hamas supporters, marched together, representing all walks of Palestinian life.
High school students joined the march, chanting a la Tahrir Square, “Raise your heads, you are teachers.”
Similar protests were held simultaneously in other West Bank cities, organized by the United Teachers Movement – a temporary coordinating committee of the striking teachers. The committee was recently elected by all the teachers after their official leadership, a PLO affiliate, the teachers’ general union, resigned following the teachers’ objection to the agreement it had signed with the education minister.
The government has so far refused to meet the elected representatives, insisting that the teachers’ union is their legitimate representative.
On Saturday, the education minister announced that long overdue salary raises will be gradually paid to the teachers – but only to those who return to work.