Gazans return to school; W. Bank students get extra day off

Student: "I want to get away from this atmosphere of Hamas versus Fatah."

Palestinian girls 298 (photo credit: AP)
Palestinian girls 298
(photo credit: AP)
Thousands of Palestinian children kicked off the new school year on Saturday in the Gaza Strip, but their counterparts in the West Bank got an extra day of vacation thanks to a teacher's strike. The streets of Gaza City were filled with students in blue uniforms returning from their two-month summer vacation, eager to find refuge from a summer of conflict between the Hamas and Fatah factions. Following Hamas's violent takeover of Gaza in June, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas fired the Hamas-led government and installed a West Bank-based Cabinet of moderates led by Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. The government of deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas continues to control Gaza and is vying for support with Abbas's Fatah. On Thursday, Haniyeh announced his government was exempting thousands of students from school fees, as a counter measure to a previous such statement from the Fayyad government, in the latest Palestinian power play. "I want to get away from this atmosphere of Hamas versus Fatah," said Mohammed Anwar, 17, who spent his last day of vacation on the Gaza beach. "In school we are all neighbors, cousins and relatives. Any problem we will solve among ourselves." More than 246,000 students, including more than 16,000 first graders, opened the new year, according to Mohammed Abu Shukair, a top Hamas top education official in Gaza. "I am praying to God that political conflicts will not affect the education process," said Salwa Othman, 45, a Gaza teacher. "The children are our treasure. We should protect them and secure their future." In the West Bank, more than 757,000 students had their vacation extended by a day due to a teachers strike over the length of the school week. The Palestinian school week traditionally runs from Saturday through Thursday. Last year, the Hamas-led government instituted a five-day week, adding Saturday as a vacation day. West Bank teachers said they would strike each Saturday until they reached an agreement with the government. They are expected to return to school on Sunday However, this year's school opening was very smooth compared to last year, when studies began two months late because of a teachers strike against the Hamas-led unity government. That government, crippled by an international boycott, was unable to pay teacher's salaries. The strike forced an estimated 800,000 Palestinian children to miss school. About 300,000 students managed to continue studies at private schools or UN schools in refugee camps. Teachers in Palestinian schools earn about 1,500 to 2,500 shekels ($360 to $605, or euro265 to euro445) a month. Education is a sensitive issue in Palestinian society, where learning is seen as a means of survival in the face of years of conflict and exile. The West Bank and Gaza Strip have one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world, and Palestinian professionals hold key positions in wealthy Gulf economies, often supporting families back home. In Israel, the school year begins on Sunday.