The strike, in which teachers demand the fulfillment of promises outlined in a 2013 agreement, comes amid growing discontent with the Palestinian Authority among Palestinians in the West Bank.
BETHLEHEM, Occupied West Bank — Schools throughout the West Bank have been closed for over two weeks due to a widespread teachers strike against the Palestinian Authority government.
The strike is unfolding amid Palestinians’ growing discontent with the PA, as well a worsening economic situation that is putting more pressure on Palestinians in the West Bank who have long suffered under Israel’s prolonged military occupation. Indeed, one of the major concerns cited by teachers involves stagnant wages that don’t keep pace with a rising cost of living.
Palestinian public school teachers commenced the strike on Feb. 10, demanding regular salary increases and promotions, among other provisions that have not been met since an agreement was signed between the PA and the Palestinian Teachers Union, following strikes in 2013.
Since the strike began, around 35,000 primary and secondary school teachers have refused to work, affecting an estimated 1 million children.
As many as 15,000 Palestinian teachers gathered peacefully to protest in front of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah on Feb. 23. The demonstration came on the heels of another protest the week before, which drew an estimated 20,000 protesters — the largest demonstration since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death over a decade ago.
Although the mainstream media paid little attention to the strike at first, the PA’s decision to erect multiple checkpoints around Ramallah to prevent teachers from mobilizing en masse last week has caught worldwide attention.
Crackdown on the strikers
Since Palestinian teachers started striking, the PA has been attempting to clamp down hard on the protestors. Teachers constitute one of the largest employment sectors in the West Bank, and their ability to assemble such a significant opposition and exert pressure to have their demands met seems to have caught the PA off-guard.
In addition to the barricades erected at checkpoints on Feb. 23, there were even recorded instances of the Palestinian police handing out 300 shekel ($75) fines to drivers for taking teachers, and some police officers threatened to revoke the licenses of taxi drivers carrying teachers.
“We passed four checkpoints, policemen, intelligence, army, and they asked if we were teachers or not, and we had to lie just to pass. As if we were criminals,” a secondary school teacher from Bethlehem, who declined to give his name due to security concerns, told MintPress.
Following the previous week’s demonstration, 22 teachers were arrested and held for 24 hours before being released.
The PA, seeking to influence teachers to end the strike, also directed mosques around the West Bank to denounce the strike during the Friday prayer.
“I was sitting in my home and heard the imam of the local mosque criticizing the strike. Then I found out the same thing had happened in other mosques, and that it was the PA who asked for this,” Abu Suhaib, a secondary school teacher from Bethlehem, told MintPress News.
“Rumors have also been spread saying that because of the strike, the final exams for last-year students will be delayed, and they will miss the application deadlines for universities,” he continued. “This is all a plot to turn everyone against us, parents, students.”
Attempts to thwart organizing
Teachers have been coordinating the strike and the demonstrations largely via social media. Since the strike started, however, their communication has been jeopardized by continuous hacking attempts in the various Facebook groups they’ve created.
“Every time we start a new group on Facebook, it gets hacked and we can’t share information with other teachers around the West Bank. We need to create a new group and hope it doesn’t get hacked too quickly,” said Abu Suhaib.
He also explained that social media is an important tool for coordinating the strike because of the lack of a real union.
The Palestinian Union of Public Employees was declared illegal in a 2014 presidential decree from PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, teachers have only had the Teachers Union, which lacks trade union status. This union has opposed the current strike, and its former head, Ahmad Suheil, has been strongly criticized by the strikers for the union’s lack of independence and its proximity to the PA.
Despite the mounting pressure on teachers to end the strike, after Tuesday’s demonstration Abu Suhaib said, “The protest is gaining momentum. On Tuesday you could almost smell the revolution.”
That same day, demonstrators scored a major victory: Suheil conceded to protesters’ demands for his resignation.
“If the union is an obstacle to an agreement between teachers and the Palestinian government, we have submitted our resignation now,” he said.
PA worries for their control structure
The PA’s series of actions, seemingly aimed at discrediting the strike and the teachers’ demands, reveals the government’s apparent lack of control over its population and teacher dissidence.
The PA’s interest in controlling any sign of unrest among its own population becomes clearer when looking at other examples of its measures to repress any form of protest, especially those directed against the Israeli occupation.
A poll conducted last fall revealed that the popularity of the PA and President Abbas had reached an all-time low — nearly two-thirds of Palestinians don’t believe the PA works in their interest. The PA’s decision to set up checkpoints to hamper demonstrators provoked outrage across social media, and it certainly didn’t bolster notion that the PA supports Palestinians.
— Muhanad Alazzeh (@muh194) February 23, 2016
When analyzing the PA’s motivations to put an end to the strike, it is important to highlight the government’s lack of independence. The PA was born out of the Oslo Accords, and operates under the umbrella and tacit acceptance of Israel. Israel is one of the main parties interested in the situation remaining calm in the West Bank, and a revolt — even one concerning domestic issues such as teachers’ rights — is cause for grave concern.
The PA is the entity responsible for managing the West Bank and its population, creating jobs for a society with high rates of unemployment, and providing security.
As the “security coordination” shows, this security is often more for Israel and less for those living under the PA. Last month, the head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service, Majid Faraj, came under fire for telling Defense News that “PA intelligence and security forces have prevented 200 attacks against Israelis, confiscated weapons and arrested about 100 Palestinians” since October. Although the “security coordination” between the PA and Israel was no secret, the revelation of such details by the head of the intelligence service, and in the midst of the current situation, resulted in widespread criticism by Palestinian society.
Meanwhile, Israel monitors all possible sources of unrest, alongside politically-motivated demonstrations against the occupation.
“It has been reported that Israel was a leading voice in demanding that the UNRWA schooling crisis was swiftly resolved last summer. Such pressure would not have been rooted in humanitarian concerns, but instead motivated by the potential for instability that would accompany many thousands of students being faced by locked school gates,” Simon Reynolds, advocacy coordinator of BADIL Resource Center, told MintPress, referring to a threatened, and narrowly avoided, delay in the opening of United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools.
This could be indicative of the interest Israel has in the current strike, and the pressure it could be putting on the PA to put an end to it. And while the PA is controlled by Israel both economically and practically, the United States’ role should not be underestimated. The U.S. was the mediator in the accords that resulted in the creation of the PA, and it’s one of the biggest donors to both the PA and to Israel.
U.S. influence over the actions of the PA is clear, as not only does it possess a direct line of pressure to the PA, but it also influences the policies and practices of Israel. The foreign policy of the U.S. has historically supported the interests of Israel, which would be threatened by any unrest in the Occupied Territories.
Whether it’s a large-scale political revolution or simply strike for teachers to demand higher pay, the PA is wary of anything that could challenge the current status quo that unquestionably benefits Israel, and by implication allies like as the U.S.