Striking distance: Protesting teachers fail to transcend Palestinian divisions

Striking distance: Protesting teachers fail to transcend Palestinian divisions
Comment: Teachers in the West Bank admirably stood up for fair pay, but abandoned their Gazan colleagues, writes Belal Dabour.
5 min read
23 Mar, 2016
For nearly a month, schools were closed and teachers declared an open-ended strike [AFP]

In early February, more than 25,000 teachers in the West Bank embarked on an enormous show of discontent on behalf of all underpaid public servants in the occupied Palestinian territories.

For three weeks, schools were closed as teachers declared an open-ended strike, demanding the Palestinian Authority to fulfil long reneged-upon promises of pay raises.

Neither the strike's seriousness nor the longevity fared well with the Palestinian Authority, which opted to deal with teachers using the same tools applied to all signs of dissent. Checkpoints were erected along roads to demonstrations, and while the security apparatus made dozens of arrests against prominent teaching figures, the official media launched an attack against those "who seek to undermine the Palestinian leadership and national institutions".

Other accusations levelled at teaching staff ranged between tutors being secret proxies of Hamas, or servants of Israeli interests.

But despite these smear campaigns and the fact that the strike touched upon the lives of virtually every Palestinian home and more than half a million students directly, the community viewed teachers' demands as legitimate, evidenced by the sheer sympathy registered over social media, and by the complete lack of affection for the official narrative.

The official narrative has it that declining foreign aid does not allow for squandering limited resources over "non-urgent issues", ie: education. But the public resents the fact that the Palestinian Authority dedicates a third of Palestine's GDP to just six security cadres, while other areas receive dimes and nickels; areas that are dubbed more significant, especially for a nation whose being under military occupation limits the potential achievements of a "security agency".

Doctors are already organising and demanding reforms in the West Bank health sector

After nearly a month, the Palestinian Authority capitulated to the mounting pressure. President Abbas promised teachers a 10 percent raise and the implementation of an earlier agreement that was reached in 2013, partially fulfilling the teachers' demands.

Many perceived the successful teacher strike as a sign of a recovering civil society in the face of an aging, repressive government. Indeed, the failure of the old divide-and-conquer game demonstrated what a united body could achieve, and that may theoretically spark further movements down the road in other important sectors.

Doctors are already organising and demanding reforms in the West Bank health sector.

However, there remains an untold story here.

The teacher body that led the strike was applauded for maintaining a united front, representing teachers from the northern city of Jenin to the southern outskirts of Hebron; but where do the teachers of the Gaza Strip figure in this equation?

The Palestinian Authority enjoys tax revenue from everything that gets into Gaza, and exerts authority over the Strip from afar - since most countries refuse to acknowledge documents not issued in Ramallah. However, these benefits are not met by obligations.

In 2007, after the elected Hamas movement had fended off an armed takeover of the Strip by Fatah, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority issued a decree ordering all civil servants to stay at home, hoping to see Hamas rule succumb to the chaos.

Thousands chose to obey and stayed at home under the promise of receiving their salaries in full as long as they remained committed to "the orders of the legitimate leadership". Thousands more did not, and for many of those, the Ramallah-issued salaries would later be cut.

The new generation of young employees who filled the vacancies received their salaries from the Hamas administration, until 2014 when Hamas theoretically handed over power to a new consensus government.

To date, the Ramallah-based consensus government still refuses to subsidise their salaries, even for those whose pay was cut after the internecine fighting of 2007.

Gaza-based public employees who are still paid their salaries from the Ramallah government have, for 10 years, received not a single pay rise. Currently, a doctor in Gaza receives 50 percent of what his colleague in the West Bank earns, and doctors who were appointed after 2007 receive much less than either.

Promotions have been frozen for a decade. Patronage -knowing someone in the Ramallah administration - remains an essential asset for those who reached the age of retirement and wish to finalise their service.

Moreover, no new jobs have been granted by the new "unity" government, despite the hundreds of vacancies that have remained unfilled since 2014. The administration in Gaza works with the limited resources to hand, and the population is left to suffer the repercussions of the political and ethical failures of their leaders.

Teachers in the Gaza Strip watched with admiration as their colleagues in the West Bank stood up for their rights

This decade-old approach toward Gaza spans a whole spectrum of jobs and classes. Even the trades unions headed by Fatah figures have failed over and over again to have the PA dismiss its policy, even if it meant scoring a symbolic victory over Hamas, the political foe.

Teachers in the Gaza Strip watched with admiration as their colleagues in the West Bank stood up for their rights and took what was rightfully theirs - but that admiration was marred by bitterness that they remain isolated, both geographically and politically, and their voices go unheard.

A recent hike in taxes permitted the administration in Gaza to offer the post-2007 employees a monthly subsidy of up to 40 percent of their salaries. Losing faith in the consensus government, Gaza teachers and the other public servants launched a series of strikes and activities directed instead at the embattled local administration.

They demanded this monthly subsidy be raised to 50 percent.

The movement coincided with the teacher strike in the West Bank, but it was severely under-reported.

When it came to the Gaza question however, teachers, presumably one of the most educated and civicly oriented classes of Palestinian society, fell victims to the political narrative of "us" and "them"; including those West Bank teachers who politically favour Hamas.

They showed enough unity and resolve to make the Palestinian Authority bow, but utter failure at speaking collectively to transcend the divisions that corrupt the political system.

A decade of Palestinian division had found its way beyond the political and is now starting to unravel the very social fabric of Palestine itself.

Belal Dabour is a Palestinian doctor in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter: @Belalmd12

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.