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(photo credit: jerusalem post)
A mass teachers' strike that was part of a growing Palestinian power struggle erupted in violence Sunday when masked militants trying to keep students away from school shot and moderately wounded a 12-year-old boy trying to go to class.
Palestinian teachers began striking Saturday, the start of the school year, to demand full back pay and regular salaries from the Hamas-led government, which has been financially crippled by six months of international sanctions.
The strike was led by leaders of the Fatah Party, a rival Palestinian group that was swept from power by Hamas earlier this year. Fatah, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has been trying to pressure Hamas into forming a national unity government that would recognize Israel.
Israel, the United States and the European Union - all of which label Hamas as a terror group - demanded the Islamic militant group renounce violence and accept Israel's right to exist before they would restore aid to the Palestinian government.
The aid cuts left the government unable to pay full salaries to its 165,000 employees.
The strike continued Sunday, with most schools throughout the West Bank remaining closed, some by force.
At least three masked militants stood outside a school in the northern West Bank city of Nablus and fired in the air to keep children away, witnesses said.
Stray fire hit a 12-year-old boy, Issam Ghannam, in the abdomen, witnesses said. He was rushed to the hospital where he underwent surgery.
"The boy is in stable condition. He has passed the danger zone and is now resting in intensive care," said Dr. Khaled Qadiri, a doctor at Rafidya Hospital in Nablus.
The child's family, Fatah loyalists, refused to condemn the militants. "They were unknown men with weapons, preventing the students from going to school," said the boy's uncle, Ghannam Ibrahim Ghannam. "They fired, and as an unintentional result of the shooting he was hit."
Hamas supporters, losing patience themselves with the government's inability to pay their salaries, have also tried to put pressure on the government. In Nablus, teachers loyal to Hamas said while the current strike was to force the government into recognizing Israel, they decided to undertake partial strikes, only teaching for half the school day.
Some residents said they supported the strike, which they said proved how ineffectual the Hamas government was six months after taking office.
"If the teachers don't get salaries, they won't teach my children well," said Yasser Hajir, 38, the father of three children in Nablus who supported the strike. "If the government isn't working for students, and the government isn't able to open schools and hospitals, it has no use and should resign."
Other parents condemned the labor action, saying it could lead to youth crime and would damage their children's education.
"The kids are in the streets now, and there are many women who have lots of children like me, their children are in the streets and are not learning," said Nadia Hajj-Ibrahim, a mother of five. "If the strike continues, I won't be able to raise my children, they'll go wild on the streets."
The strike was widely viewed as a tactic by Fatah to pressure Hamas to join it in a national unity government. Abbas hopes the alliance will force Hamas to recognize Israel, helping end 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 made little headway and accused Hamas of stalling.
"President Abbas is exerting maximum efforts in order to achieve a government with a political program that will enable us to resume our normal relations with the international community on the political side, on the economic side, on the donor side," Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat, an Abbas ally, said Sunday. "It's difficult, it's not easy, there are many obstacles facing us."