GAZA (Reuters) - Thousands of Gaza teachers quit classes Wednesday to protest at a U.N. refugee agency’s suspension of a Palestinian staffer, raising tension between UNRWA and Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers.
Relations between the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and Hamas have been uneasy ever since the Islamists took over the Gaza Strip after a brief civil war with forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement in 2007.
Hamas has repeatedly criticized UNRWA for ignoring its authority and for facilitating visits to Gaza by international officials from which Hamas leaders regularly have been excluded.
The Local Staff Union, a pro-Hamas body, called for a general strike Wednesday, the second such action in a week, to protest at UNRWA’s suspension of the head of the union, Suhail Al-Hindi. Hamas sources said the U.N. agency had accused Hindi of meeting with Hamas political officials.
Buses took some 7,000 teachers employed at UNRWA-run schools to U.N. headquarters in Gaza city where they held a sit-in, calling for an end to “UNRWA political punishment of employees.”
“Death rather than humiliation” read a banner held by striking teachers. “Deception, lying and hypocrisy have become the core values of UNRWA,” read another.
The strike affected all of UNRWA’s 243 schools in Gaza.
Hindi told the teachers he would stand against “oppression and injustice” but added that Palestinians saw UNRWA as a symbol of the cause of refugees and that its role should be preserved “until the Israeli occupation is removed.”
UNRWA was founded in 1949 to serve refugees in Gaza, the West Bank and Arab countries after Palestinians were displaced from British-mandated Palestine when Israel was created.
Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s chief spokesman in Jerusalem, said disputes should be resolved internally and not through actions that undermine agency operations and services to Gazans.
“UNRWA is extremely concerned about the impact of further strikes on the education of 220,000 children in our schools, children whose right to education is being denied,” he said in a statement.
Earlier this week, the Hamas administration accused UNRWA of trying to create a “parallel authority.”
Hamas is regarded in the West as a terrorist organization which refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist and it is routinely boycotted by high-level Western visitors to Gaza.
“The Palestinian people cannot accept the punishment of an employee of the head of the employees union just because of his participation in a regular community activity,” said Taher Al-Nono, spokesman of the Hamas administration in Gaza.
Hamas lawmakers often criticize UNRWA’s education policies and some accuse it of trying to teach material that encourages normalization with Israel or educate pupils about the Holocaust.
UNRWA denies this is part of its curriculum.
Islamist radicals opposed to mixed-gender activities are believed to be behind arson attacks on UNRWA-run summer camps.
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Alistair Lyon