Wildcat teachers’ strike reveals broader frustrations in Palestinian society


In February and March, thousands of Palestinian teachers defied pressure by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and staged a wildcat strike, finally winning the pay raise they were promised three years earlier. Though a victory for the educators, it exposed deep, unresolved frustrations among Palestinians and their government.

And the victory could be short-lived, as future raises the PA agreed to are by no means certain. Critics of the government accuse it of cronyism and corruption, while PA officials blame their funding woes on Israel withholding their tax revenue.

On February 16 an estimated 20,000 teachers – almost half the entire Palestinian teaching staff — demonstrated in front of the Palestinian Authority offices in Ramallah, protesting notoriously precarious salaries worth less than US$800 a month, without the opportunity to earn raises or promotions.

One of the major turning points in the strike was the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to impede the protesters, as PA security forces installed checkpoints across the Israeli-occupied West Bank and barred teachers from reaching Ramallah to attend further demonstrations. Bus and taxi drivers were also reportedly threatened with having their licenses revoked if they transported teachers to protests.

“We knew about these things, but our minister kept on saying all the time that he was not with these procedures. We all said this was not done in the proper way,” Nisrine Amro, the general director of international and public relations of the Palestinian Ministry of Education, tells Equal Times. She adds she wasn’t aware of who took the decision to suppress the demonstrations.

Just as troubling were reports that Palestinian security forces detained dozens of teachers and principals, notably summoning Palestinian MP Najat Abu Baker, one of the most prominent supporters of the strike, for questioning.

“I spoke with some of them (teachers) as a person who had previously worked with unions during long-term strikes,” Abu Baker tells Equal Times. “So from the perspective of security forces, I was against the Palestinian Authority, despite the fact that I was working to find the keys to solve the problem.”

The Fatah-affiliated MP denounces the way the crisis was handled, saying it showed the PA’s lack of will to address the issues.

“The attack was brutal, and the handling of the teacher’s crisis was very bad. The worst thing is that they militarised it, they made it a security issue and not about the needs of the teachers. And this was the beginning of a slide into an unwillingness to deal with the teachers’ crisis,” she says.


An uncertain future in a difficult context

Another notable point of contention was the proximity of the teachers’ union leadership to the government, which many demonstrators felt was to the detriment of their demand for rights. Thus the wildcat walkout.

“This strike happened without the teachers’ union, and this was a big shock to everybody because there was such a large number of teachers on strike at the same time,” Amro says.

After significant pressure from the striking teachers, the head of the union, Ahmad Sahwil, submitted his resignation to the Palestinian Authority, although it was not immediately accepted by the government.

For Salah Khawaja, a Palestinian rights activist who participated in the teachers’ movement, the teacher’s union position within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) – the most prominent Palestinian political organisation, often nebulously connected to the PA – still stands as a significant hurdle to accurate representation of Palestinian workers.

“The teachers need a new union outside of the PLO, as does every worker,” Khawaja tells Equal Times, noting that the teachers began building a parallel representative body during the protests, and that union elections were expected to take place in coming months, although this remained uncertain.

The teachers’ social movement ended on 12 March, after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed the raises promised in 2013 to be implemented in full in the short term, in addition to another raise during the 2017-18 school year.

Although many teachers remain doubtful that promises made now will be kept down the road, Amro says this was the best the Palestinian government could do given the circumstances, adding that administrators of the Ministry of Education were paid even less than teachers, exemplifying a broader issue for Palestinian government employees.

“Israel is withholding taxes all of the time, and the occupation is stopping us from making any progress, for the teachers or for anything in the PA. We don’t have a wide margin to do what we want,” she says.

“We are not that rich as a government,” Amro adds. “There is a commitment from the government that they are going to pay (the raises). And the other commitment is from the president himself. They can’t do more than that anyway.”


A symbol of popular discontent?

The protests have struck a chord among many Palestinians, who have viewed the teachers’ strike as the latest example of the PA’s detachment from the concerns of Palestinian society, as the Palestinian government has been criticised over the years for its corruption, cronyism and suppression of political opposition.

“The government does not want to hear the voice of an MP,” Abu Baker says. “They want to work any way they want. They want to steal anything they want. And this is shameful, it shouldn’t happen.”

Khawaja deplored the PA’s regular attempts to discredit its detractors. “If you want to criticise something then they say you are from Hamas, or you work for the Americans,” he said.

Abu Baker agrees. “These teachers are not politicians. They are academics, and we shouldn’t immerse them into politics. Their role is to teach, but politics were forced unto them, and this is wrong,” she says.

Abu Baker says she feels pessimistic about prospects for further social movements in Palestine.

“I do not think there will be movements like this in the future. There was a lot of repression by the government against this cause,” she says. “Recently, I had a meeting with some of the teachers and they told me that they did not want to give anymore. It’s dangerous to hear a teacher say that, and it’s painful.”

But Khawaja chooses to remain optimistic. “The Third Intifada, the popular Palestinian struggle, the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel), the teachers… all this builds a map for the future. I am sure that what happened, the making of a new movement for the teachers, there will be the same situation for the Palestinians,” he says.

And this desired change for Palestinian society cannot happen without a change in the education system, Khawaja affirms.

“If you don’t help students or teachers, you can’t help change the culture. If we turn back now, it’s a bigger problem for any protest, any movement, any advocacy in the future.”