Last month, Palestinian teacher Hanan Al-Hroub was named among the top ten finalists for the 2016 Valley Park Foundation Global Teacher's Prize; it was both a personal as well as national achievement. The satisfaction that accompanied her success has, however, been overshadowed by a bitter dispute between the Palestine Teachers' Union and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The row threatens to undermine the outstanding work done by tens of thousands of dedicated teachers throughout the occupied Palestinian territories.
As it stands, there are no signs that the strike action which began on 10th February is about to end. On the contrary, positions are hardening on both sides with students, inevitably, paying a heavy price. Losing valuable learning hours because of delays at Israeli security check points or road closures is bad enough; losing part of the academic year because of avoidable internal Palestinian differences only adds insult to injury.
Like industrial disputes everywhere, the issues are largely about wages and conditions of work. Teachers are especially aggrieved that their demands for increased salaries have been spurned at a time when other public sector workers have been rewarded handsomely. The Teachers' Union points out that while doctors and engineers were recently granted 90 per cent and 60 per cent increases respectively, their demands for a smaller wage rise have been rejected. Understandably, teachers feel hard done by, because university lecturers have also been able to negotiate a substantial increase in their salaries.
Around 170,000 people are employed in the Palestinian civil service across the occupied territories; most of the monthly wage bill of $150,000 comes from the tax revenue collected by Israel from trade conducted with Palestine. However, Israel has reneged regularly on its commitment to hand over Palestinian tax revenue. It withholds the income when it pleases — usually as a punitive measure against the PA — and dispenses the money when it suits Tel Aviv to do so.
More than two-thirds of the PA's 45,000 teachers live and work in the occupied West Bank. They earn an average monthly salary of $600 and the government in Ramallah allocates about 18 per cent of the budget to education. In response to the current teachers' demands, the PA claims that it cannot meet them because of the deficit created by dwindling international aid and the non-delivery of the revenue owed by Israel. In the 2015 financial year the total external aid to the PA slumped to $705 million from $1.087 billion in 2014.
In Palestine, international aid comes with a political price. The US, which has been a major donor, is unhappy with the policies of the Ramallah administration. Hence, in September last year, the State Department announced that it was cutting economic aid for Palestine by 21.6 per cent, from $370 million to $290 million in the fiscal year which ended that month. The political motive behind the decision was as no surprise, especially when the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously adopted a resolution on 22nd October condemning the Palestinian leadership for "incitement" to violence against Jews in Israel and peddling hatred through education and the media.
Despite the setback, President Mahmoud Abbas approved a budget of $4.25 billion in January for the current fiscal year. As in previous years, it reflected an almost excessive allocation for administrative spending compared to the low output for development expenses. Predictably, the lion's share has been earmarked for the six security agencies employed by the PA: the police, Preventive Security, General Intelligence, Military Intelligence, National Security Forces and the Presidential Guards. With around 70,000 personnel, they are expected to siphon off a third of the budget.
The current industrial dispute with the Teachers' Union is a natural consequence of misplaced priorities. No amount of intimidation, arrest and "early retirement" of teachers or their union officials will resolve the matter satisfactorily. At best, the only assured result from such an approach is an increased sense of injustice and victimisation.
It is now exactly one year since the PLO's Central Council adopted a resolution to end security coordination with Israel. Apart from a constant barrage of rhetoric, no practical steps have been taken in this direction. The only exception has been a formal notification delivered to the Israelis last month by Palestinian security officials affirming their intent to end the costly coordination.
The short-sighted may view the striking teachers as political saboteurs. They, on the other hand, maintain that they simply want to be treated like other civil servants and be given a fairer share of the national cake.
The time is long overdue for the PA to decide which is more important, Israel's security or the future of young Palestinians. If and when it opts for the latter, the PA will be better positioned to invest much-needed funds in delivering the well-rounded education for which Palestinian teachers like Hanan Al-Hroub have become renowned.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.