Defying PA repression, Palestinian teachers lead biggest strike in years

Basel Adra

+972 Magazine  /  April 18, 2023

Amid an economic crisis caused by Israeli policies and PA corruption, teachers are bringing schools and streets to a standstill until their demands are met.

Thousands of Palestinian teachers across the West Bank and Gaza are currently engaged in the largest and most enduring strike of its kind in years. For two months, all Palestinian public school teachers have been coming in to teach grades one through 12 only in the mornings, and participating in demonstrations to demand improvements to their working conditions, higher salaries, and more independence in the education system.

The strike is being coordinated via digital platforms such as Facebook and Telegram by an independent group of teacher-activists. They have chosen to remain anonymous — referring to themselves only as the “Teachers’ Movement” — in order to thwart the efforts of Palestinian security forces to track them down since the start of the strike.

“We continue to strike because the government continues to avoid meeting our demands,” one of the leaders of the Teachers’ Movement told +972. “We announced the strike at the start of February, after we saw them fail to meet their obligations from last year.”

During the previous school year, teachers led a 57-day strike that ended with an agreement signed by PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, in which he undertook to raise teacher salaries by 15 percent and establish an independent and democratic teachers’ committee. Neither has come to fruition.

“We want to choose our representatives on the committee ourselves, in a democratic way,” a movement representative told +972. “Today, the government chooses the majority of committee members, and the committee is bureaucratically subordinated to the government. The result is that the committee expresses the will of the government, not of the teachers.”

The strike is impacting 52,000 teachers and nearly 1,000,000 students in the West Bank and Gaza. The public education system in both territories is administered and funded by the PA, while education in refugee camps is run by UNRWA, the UN body providing services to those displaced during the Nakba of 1948 and their descendants. UNRWA workers have been on strike for 85 days, also in protest of unfair working conditions.

Public sector workers across the West Bank have been protesting against the PA government in recent years, among them doctors, lawyers, and judges; the teachers’ strike is not unusual in that regard. All of these protests are taking place against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis caused in no small part by Israel’s punitive measures against the PA. Chief among these is a law passed in 2018 to withhold half a billion shekels (around $140 million) each year from the taxes Israel collects and transfers to the PA in compliance with the Oslo Accords, due to the PA’s financial support for the families of those held in Israeli prisons. 

Other factors that have contributed to the economic crisis are corruption in the PA and its agencies; a reduction in aid sent by the U.S. and Europe; and the limitations imposed by Israel’s occupation, which prevent Palestinian development in most of the West Bank. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s strike, and the present crisis, the education of an entire generation of Palestinian students has been profoundly disrupted. 

In March, the teachers organized a mass demonstration in Ramallah, with thousands participating. The PA erected checkpoints on the roads leading to the protest in an attempt to block teachers arriving from outside the city. A representative from the Teachers’ Movement told +972: “The government punishes all the teachers participating in the strike by cutting our salaries every month by anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 shekels — for the hours spent on strike.”

According to Samed Sanobar, who helped lead the teachers’ strike in 2016 and helped craft the demand for an independent teachers’ committee, Israel’s punitive measures and the pressure from the PA and security forces against the protesters are also not new. “Back then, we collected the signatures of more than 15,000 teachers. But security forces came after us. They prevented event spaces from renting to us for our conferences and events. When we would walk by cafes and restaurants in order to collect signatures, they ordered the shop owners to kick us out. 

“Ultimately,” Sanobar continued, “they forced me onto an early pension, even though I’m only 31, as a way to punish me for the strike. The same thing also happened to two of my colleagues.” Leaders of the current protest are worried they will be forced to pay a similar price for their organizing.

Publicly, the PA has expressed a willingness to comply with some of the protest leaders’ demands. Prime Minister Shtayyeh described in a Facebook post last month how his government would accommodate them, while senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub held a press conference via livestream in which he outlined the government’s plan to resolve the crisis. But protest leaders say they have yet to see results in practice, and, given their experience over the last few years, they have no intention of ending the strike. “We have no faith in the PA, and we won’t stop until all of our demands are met,” one protest leader told +972.

“These strikes keep repeating themselves, and the PA is procrastinating in trying to find a solution to the crisis,” said Hisham Sharbati, the father of three children enrolled in PA schools. For their education, he continued, the situation is “very dangerous,” adding: “The children are missing important study materials, especially my oldest, who is studying now for the matriculation exam. This will determine their future.”

Basil Adraa is an activist, journalist, and photographer from the village of a-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills