We Don't Get No Education

Over a half a million students have been kept out of school for two months after Palestinian teachers go on strike.

NABLUS - Iyyad and Majdi, 11-year-old boys from Nablus, could be expected to envy their friends and neighbors whose government schools have been on strike since September 1. This is not the case. Iyyad attends a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency responsible for education and health services for refugees, and Majdi attends a private church school. Perhaps they are not aware of the far-reaching consequences of more than half a million students losing two months of school, but they do know very well that their friends and neighbors are simply dying of boredom.

Iyyad's 14-year-old sister Hind attends a high school that is on strike (UNRWA runs only elementary schools). So what does she do all day? "Nothing," she replies. "I watch television a bit, I read a bit and I practice karate a bit." ("She has a brown belt," her father says proudly). "Mostly I get bored," she continues, "and I help mother in the house."

Her mother, Nahed, is one of the striking teachers. She is certainly aware of the dangerous implications the strike has for the students and teachers. She supports the strike anyway, and rejects Hamas' claims that it is driven by Fatah's political motives. She herself has never been a supporter of Fatah.

The teachers' committee decided to strike at government schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on August 21, 2006. The committee has an impressive history of head-on clashes with Yasser Arafat's regime. The committee was established in 2000, at the height of an extraordinary struggle for a raise and the establishment of an independent teachers' union (instead of one headed by Arafat's yes-men, political appointments and Education Ministry employees). Over the course of the two-year struggle, Arafat and the security organizations did all they could to break the protest: Its leaders were arrested, and protesters were beaten and threatened. But the popular democratic support for the teachers and their demands overrode everything, even the claim that the committee heads were "collaborators." The teachers' committee was recognized as the temporary representative of the public school teachers, until elections would be held for an independent union. The committee also decided to initiate sanctions during the 2001-2002 school year should salary demands not be met, but then the second intifada broke out and all plans were suspended.

Of the 17 committee members, four are Hamas members. They were partners to the decision to strike in protest of the non-payment of teachers' salaries since April 2006. The committee has assigned responsibility for the situation and its solution to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

"They could at least have seen to paying our transportation costs," says Nahed. She teaches at a school south of the Hawara roadblock. Every day she wastes an hour to cross the 50 meters of the roadblock, so short and yet so long.

Devoted to the job

Nahed, like her tens of thousands of colleagues, proved her devotion to her work over the past six years. For many months, when the Israel Defense Forces was sealing Nablus' exits almost hermetically, she would get to the school via circuitous bypass routes, knowing very well that she was exposing herself to soldiers' fire. When the IDF imposed a curfew of several months on Nablus, it was the teachers and the students who broke it by establishing neighborhood classrooms. In the next stage, the teachers and the students were sent to school, despite the curfew.

Nahed withstood all this - the scary tanks in the streets, the shooting above their heads, the loss of precious time, the emotional and physical effort - but without a salary she simply cannot afford the payment of NIS 13 a day: NIS 2 from home to the center of town, another NIS 2.50 from the center of town to the Hawara roadblock, and NIS 2 from Hawara to the school. And back.

Nahed's eldest daughter is in 12th grade, and her principal decided the teachers would teach and instruct the students who will be taking their matriculation exams this year. At other schools, they hold classes for two hours every morning. In Gaza - where about 50 percent of the students attend UNRWA schools in any case - the strike was suspended for a month in mid-September. In the West Bank some parents are transferring their children to UNRWA schools or private schools. The wife of Nasser al-Shaer transferred one of their children from a public school to a private school while her husband - the Palestinian Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister - was under arrest.

European standards

Al-Shaer was arrested by the IDF about two months ago, along with many other Palestinian cabinet and parliament members. He was released less than a month ago, after 42 days of interrogation "that focused primarily on political discussions."

During all of those days he was held in a windowless cell, without a radio, television or newspapers. "I had to negotiate over a toothbrush," he says. The investigators and prosecution decided there was no basis for filing an indictment against him for involvement in terror.

"I am an Islamist, true, but I am not a member of Hamas and I never have been," he says. He has never met Haniyeh, but has spoken to him only by telephone.

Al-Shaer sits in his apartment, working with senior ministry officials. Since he cannot leave Nablus, his permanent place of residence, he has not yet met with the members of the teachers' committee, which is headquartered in Ramallah. Al-Shaer, who completed a doctorate in religious studies in Britain, says he is trying to develop and advance the Palestinian education system in accordance with European standards. He says some countries have continued to transfer development funds to the Palestinian educational system under agreements that preceded the establishment of the Hamas government, but as long as Israel is continuing, for eight months now, to block the transfer of the PA's income from taxes and customs duties (about NIS 1.5 billion thus far), the government cannot pay employee salaries.

He understands the striking teachers' distress but he says, in very cautious language, that they have no right to cause such great damage to the children. "We do not have the power to force them to return to teaching," he says frankly. "We don't have the strength, and we don't have the will." Al-Shaer is prepared to say the strike contains "an element of party-political exploitation," but he is convinced that without salaries, the strike will not end, and that salaries will not arrive until Israel is pressured to end the siege on the Palestinians and their funds.

He also rejects claims that the Hamas government is finding indirect ways to pay its own people. "Every check I sign goes through review at the Finance Ministry and Abbas' bureau," he says.

Omar Assaf was a leader of the teachers' struggle at the end of the 1990s. He was jailed for several months and lost his job at a public school for his involvement. He is sorry the Hamas representatives on the teachers' committee have withdrawn their support for the strike. In his opinion, both Abbas and Haniyeh could have evinced more creativity: They could have ensured that teachers' travel expenses were covered, or paid at least part of the monthly salaries.

"Now," he says, "the teachers' committee is trying to find creative solutions. For example, not to declare an end to the strike but rather to return to work as volunteers, because of the anxiety about the children's future."