AL-AZZA REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank (AP) — In schools across the world, children are halfway into their second semester. But in a Palestinian refugee camp south of Jerusalem, kids wake up at 1 p.m. They kick soccer balls, hang out in barbershops and aimlessly scroll through TikTok. They watch television until dawn, just to wake up late and laze around all over again.
Palestinian public schools in the West Bank have been closed since Feb. 5 in one of the longest teachers’ strikes in recent memory against the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority. Teachers’ demands for a pay raise have escalated into a protest movement that has vexed the increasingly autocratic Palestinian self-rule government as it plunges deeper into an economic crisis.
But the strike isn’t just about money. As the largest group of government employees in the West Bank after security forces, teachers are also calling for a democratically elected union. The authority hasn't budged, fearing its rivals, like the Islamic militant group Hamas, could use their movement against the ruling Fatah party.
“Everything is chaos,” said Sherin al-Azza, a social worker and mother of five in a refugee camp called al-Azza, which has become a neighborhood of the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Determined that her children have an education, she cobbled together $200 in savings to hire private tutors and send her eldest son to after-school classes during the strike — an impossibility for most of the refugee camp, she said.
President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, which rules parts of the West Bank not controlled by Israel, accuses striking teachers of holding around a million schoolchildren hostage to their demands for better pay.
But teachers who have felt undervalued for decades say they have no choice but to walk out.
“I feel terrible for the kids,” said Mohammed Brijeah, a 44-year-old Arabic teacher for the past 23 years. “But the way (the Palestinian Authority) treats us is insulting. I want to live with some dignity.”
For years, teachers across the West Bank have struggled to make ends meet with salaries of some $830 a month — considerably less than other professions requiring a comparable education. Now, a year and a half after the Palestinian Authority slashed the income of government employees by 20% to cope with a budget shortfall, teachers say they’ve had enough.
The crisis started in January, when teachers expected to receive a 15% pay raise along with back pay based on an agreement that ended a shorter strike last May. That deal also promised changes to their system of representation, allowing for long-sought union elections. But as the year started, teachers said one look at their pay slip broke their trust in officials.
“They lied to us,” said Yousef Ijha, a 37-year-old history teacher in Bethlehem. He and other teachers pressing to form their own independent elected union are pushing back against the current syndicate stacked with supporters of Fatah. Their movement has mobilized through an anonymous Telegram channel with nearly 20,000 followers and galvanized huge, angry crowds for two sit-ins in the city of Ramallah, the seat of the authority.
In response, the authority has threatened mass firings and even arrests, drawing fresh attention to what critics describe as its crackdown on civil society groups and freedom of expression.
A lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Education on March 13 lists the names of 151 outspoken teachers who would be dismissed if they continued their strike and detained if they put up further resistance.
"Not only are we not getting our salaries, we're literally not allowed to speak up," said Ijha, whose name is on the list.
Before a protest in Ramallah earlier this month, Palestinian security forces set up checkpoints and roadblocks on the way to the city, according to teachers who attended, diverting them through rocky hills.
The heavy security struck a darkly familiar chord for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
“They made us feel like criminals,” said 50-year-old science teacher Omar Mhisen, who said Palestinian police stopped him and made him show ID as he drove from the West Bank city of Hebron.
Analysts say that the increasingly unpopular authority — widely seen as a collaborator with Israel — worries opposition groups like Hamas could gain control of the teachers' freely elected union, wielding power over a vast and vital swath of the public workforce and fueling instability in the territory. Hamas violently wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas' authority in 2007.
“The opposition's ability to win is an outcome of the decline of the Palestinian Authority's ability to fulfill its obligations,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian peace negotiator and Cabinet minister.
On Monday, after the teachers’ movement rejected the PA’s latest offer to gradually compensate for their salary cuts over an undetermined period of time, the Ministry of Education said it’s preparing to recruit over 45,000 teachers on short-term contracts to replace all the strikers next month. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh pleaded with the teachers to return to schools.
“We must meet our responsibility to ensure the right to education for our sons and daughters,” Shtayyeh said at Monday's Cabinet meeting.
The self-rule government, limping along as it struggles with an economic slowdown and soaring debt, argues it cannot afford to pay all its employees. Earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government further crippled the authority when it decided to deduct an additional 50 million shekels (over $14 million) each month from the tax revenues it collects on the Palestinians' behalf, among other punitive measures.
“We are facing dangers from declining donor support and an enemy that denies our existence and perpetuates our financial crisis with unfair cuts," said government spokesman Ibrahim Melhem. “We have done everything we can."
Many teachers are skeptical. Refusing to back down, the movement warned it would pitch tents in Ramallah’s main square and camp out for the rest of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
As the standoff deepens, parents fret that their children are falling far behind and won't be prepared for university entrance exams or even next semester.
“This is our lost generation,” said Ahmad, a 43-year-old lawyer and father of six, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals.
It was past noon in his sunlit apartment and his pajama-clad kids were rubbing sleep from their eyes as they staggered into the kitchen and played on their phones. With him and his wife working all day and his kids left alone, he said he couldn't get them to stick to a set schedule or bedtime.
“As a father, I am suffering,” he said.
His 15-year-old son, Athal, was perfectly content. “I never want to go back to school,” he said.