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Teachers Strike Closes Palestinian Schools

September 03, 2006|From the Associated Press

GAZA CITY — Thousands of unpaid teachers began the Palestinian school year Saturday with a strike that shut down classrooms across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a backlash that is testing the beleaguered Hamas-led government's ability to survive.

"The Hamas government is in a very bad position now," said Awwad Barghouti, who brought his son Saed to the El Bireh high school outside the West Bank town of Ramallah, only to find it closed. "Either it concedes to the international community or it quits."

Hamas, which took office in March after winning legislative elections, has rejected international calls to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist, despite sanctions by Israel and Western donors that have bankrupted the government.

Unable to pay the government's 165,000 workers, Hamas has sought help from Muslim and Arab allies. But it has raised only a tiny fraction of the money needed to pay back-wages.

An Israeli military offensive in Gaza, launched after Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier, has added to the government's troubles. More than 170 Palestinians, mostly militants, have been killed in the two-month offensive, according to the United Nations.

In a sign of Hamas' growing frustration, hundreds of gunmen deployed around schools in Gaza, unsuccessfully trying to persuade teachers and students to hold classes Saturday.

In the West Bank, activists with the rival Fatah party stood in front of schools to enforce the strike, firing into the air at times.

The strike Saturday was widely viewed as a tactic by Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate, to pressure Hamas to join it in a so-called national unity government. Abbas hopes such an alliance would force Hamas to recognize Israel, helping lift the sanctions and enabling him to renew peace talks.

Abbas returned to his West Bank headquarters Saturday after four days of negotiations with Hamas leaders in Gaza. Late Saturday, the PLO's Executive Committee, headed by Abbas, said the talks had made little headway and accused Hamas of stalling.

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