Beitunya, Occupied West Bank – What began as a two-day walkout aimed at boosting teachers’ salaries has evolved into one of the biggest protests seen on Palestinian streets in years. The strike, now entering its fourth week, has closed state schools across the West Bank and pitted teachers against their own union leaders and a hesitant government.
On Monday fresh reports emerged of teachers being targeted, pulled from cars by the Palestinian Authority security services and prohibited from entering Ramallah, where a large protest took place in support of a nationwide teacher strike.
It was a rare occasion where PA security set up roadblocks and checkpoints for Palestinians, a measure usually associated with the occupying Israeli army in the West Bank.
Following Monday’s demonstration that drew thousands of teachers and pupils to Ramallah, Palestinian Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah released a statement on the crisis.
“The Palestinian teacher deserves our respect and admiration; however, everyone should put the interests of our children and their education ahead of everything,” he said.
Among the pupils themselves, those who are preparing to take the “tawjihi”, matriculation exams, this year have the most to lose from the ongoing strike.
Some teachers have reportedly reached agreements with principals to give certain classes to this group of pupils to prepare them for the crucial university entrance exams, but they want to keep the arrangement covert for fear of upsetting other striking teachers.
On Tuesday morning in Beitunya, Mohammed Saeed was one of a handful of pupils walking out of the boys’ high school gates.
“For sure it is having a negative effect. It’s my final year and my future is at stake,” he told Al Jazeera. “I’m worried and stressed right now because I can’t see where this is going to end.”
Saeed still travels to school each day in case there are classes, and was heading home after an hour-long Arabic class that morning.
rights. They get low salaries and we need to stand with them.”]
In the long hours without classes, Saeed says he spends most of his time watching television checking the news and trying to study sometimes.
But the 18-year-old, who hopes to study political science at university, said he supported the teachers’ strike wholeheartedly. “This is about their rights. They get low salaries and we need to stand with them.”
Confronted with the sudden abundance of free time for their children, Palestinian parents are also anxious for the strike to be resolved soon.
Without the regular routine of the school day, Na’el Manasra said his two daughters, 11 and 13, were staying up too late, spending listless days and nights watching TV rather than studying.
“This strike has put us in a corner. As parents, we don’t know what to do with our kids,” said the exasperated father.
“I don’t hate the teachers, but I hate this strike. I respect the teachers and their demands but as a parent, all that really matters to me is my daughters’ education,” said Manasra.
The mass movement began on February 10 when the teachers’ union organised a two-day walkout after public school teachers did not receive an expected 2.5 percent backdated pay rise, in line with an agreement reached in 2013.
Talks between the union and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) followed, during which the union was forced to resign amid accusations from teachers that it was working against their interests and was instead boosting the government position.
“The government and the union wanted to get the teachers to accept a smaller raise now and increase it over a longer period of time to try to limit the teachers’ demands,” said Nabil Samara, principal at the Beitunya boys’ high school.
In February he resigned from the union in protest over its role.
Since then, the teachers’ demands have evolved, to include an immediate implementation of the 2013 agreement to increase teacher pay by 10 percent, including backdated pay. They also want the right to elect a new representative body to negotiate with the legislators in place of the union.
The basic starting salary for teachers in public schools is currently 1,700 shekels ($434) a month, with additional payments bringing that figure up to 2,400 shekels each month ($615). For many in the profession, it is barely enough to get by on and as a result, some teachers have taken second jobs.
At a Chinese restaurant in Ramallah, Ahmad has just finished the late afternoon rush. The 30-year-old has been teaching for six years but each day, after his classes finish around 2pm, he heads to the restaurant where he works until 10pm. The second job brings his monthly earnings to around 5,000 shekels ($1,278), which he says is just enough to support his wife and live a normal life.
“It’s not enough at all. You need more than this every month, just to carry on with life,” said Ahmad, who asked not to use his full name. “It’s very hard for me, sometimes I work 20 hours a day and don’t see my family or my wife.”
“As a teacher, I have to prepare for my classes and sometimes I cannot because I have to work a second job to survive here.”