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Students emerge as losers of 2-month UNRWA standoff
Published Monday 10/03/2014 (updated) 13/03/2014 17:53
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Papers strewn on the ground near a boys' school in Aida refugee
camp on test day, March 4, 2014 (MaanImages/Graham Liddell)

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Thousands of students in Palestine are bound for summer school this year, but not due to failing grades or classroom misbehavior.

Instead, the children are paying the price for an extended squabble between their teachers and the organization that administers their schooling.

In February, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah brokered a deal to end a 66-day strike by Palestinian employees of the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

Though neither the UNRWA administration nor the workers unions that led the strike claim the deal as a victory, students have emerged as the clear losers of the bureaucratic standoff.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness says 97 schools were closed from Dec. 3, 2013, to Feb. 7 this year due to the strike, affecting over 51,000 students.

"A total of 28 to 30 school days were lost," Gunness told Ma'an.

In order to make up for the time they missed, students will have to attend school six days a week most weeks, as 14 Saturday school days have been added to the schedule. Additionally, Gunness said classes would have to be extended into the summer months, not ending until late June.

"A general decline in children's academic performance should be expected due the prolonged disruption of the school year," he added.

'The strike wasn't good for us'

Students in the Bethlehem area say they have already lost ground as a result of the strike, and now find themselves hurriedly cramming months of lessons into weeks. Soon after returning to school, they say they were tested on material they were taught before the unexpected two-month vacation.

"We started with tests right when we got back to school," 13-year-old Bahaa Abu Tarboush told Ma'an.

"We forgot the material, and we didn't even get to study the entire book but we still had to take the test."

He added: "The strike wasn't good for us."

A school principal and UNRWA teachers union member, speaking to Ma'an on the condition of anonymity, said the strike caused "a gap between students' progress and our school's curricular goals."

But the principal downplayed the lingering effects on schoolchildren, saying the unions agreed to end the strike "for the sake of the students."

"There are no problems," he said.

"The duration of the strike was for 66 days, but students only lost 21 school days," he added, calculating weekends, holidays, and snow days into the equation.

He stressed that though students would have to make up for lost time, they would not have to go to school every Saturday, and that they would not be attending full time during the summer.

The extra days will include "in-school activities to make it easier for students," he said.

Students close Bethlehem's Manger street in an UNRWA strike protest in January
(MaanImages/Alex Shams)

Students at the mercy of 'stubborn' officials

With few structured activities crammed into two months off school, many refugee students found themselves participating in strike protests, and some in clashes with Israeli forces.

On several occasions in January youngsters from refugee camps burnt tires and closed main roads, demanding that UNRWA placate the unions' demands to negotiate the reopening of schools.

In January, dozens of youths blocked a main road connecting Ramallah to Jerusalem and clashed with Palestinian police in al-Jalazun refugee camp. Dozens were injured.

Asked about the youth's participation in strike activity, 14-year-old Ismail al-Qaisi said that "the strike was for the teachers, not for the students."

"We supported the teachers so they could take their rights from (the UNRWA administration)," said Ismail, who goes to school in Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem.

"But we're not responsible for the strike," he said.

Ismail also remembers that clashes between refugee youths and Israeli forces increased dramatically in the Bethlehem area during the time of the strike.

"There were clashes near (Azza) camp," Ismail said. "The kids from the camp participated, and even people inside their houses suffered because of the tear gas."

Meanwhile, the UNRWA unions and the administration were locked in seemingly fruitless debate.

The unions were demanding an across-the-board salary increase, while the administration insisted such an increase was not viable due to funding struggles. The unions demanded that 53 employees who were laid off in late 2013 be rehired, while the administration said the employees had reached the end of what was always understood to be temporary contracts, and that there was no plan to rehire them.

The unions accused the UNRWA administration of firing all employees who were detained by Israeli forces during their service, a policy which UNRWA claimed was more complex. A lack of agreement on these issues among several others kept the two sides from finding a solution.

"There was stubbornness from the two sides, from the administration and the union," the school principal told Ma'an.

"This stubbornness was a result of the conflict between the rightful demands of the employees and UNRWA's inability to fulfill these demands."

Ultimately, however, the Palestinian Authority played mediator and was able to broker a quasi-deal which ended the strike and set up committees to negotiate various disputes in the months to come.

Though the UNRWA administration and union leaders have both remained tight-lipped about the terms of the agreement, the school principal agreed to provide more details on the condition of anonymity.

The 53 employees that were laid off in December will be given "fixed-term, renewable employment," the principal said.

While Palestinian UNRWA employee salaries in Gaza used to be higher on average, West Bank employees will now be paid the same wage, he added.

UNRWA, however, will not change its policy regarding detainees.

The rest of the issues, including demands for an across-the-board, nine percent pay increases, will be put to "joint committee" discussions sponsored by the PA ministry of labor, he said.

In the meantime, Palestine's refugee students will do their best to catch up with their peers in government schools.

Students swing in Aida camp's Lajee Garden on March 4, 2014
(MaanImages/Graham Liddell)
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