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Jail ordeal used to break strike over pay

Twenty-five Palestinian teachers were released from jail at midnight last Friday, after serving from one to five days in lock-ups throughout the Palestinian West Bank. The order to detain without charge is believed to have come from president Yasser Arafat himself. The move was aimed - and apparently succeeded - at breaking a teachers' pay strike.

The episode reportedly began when teachers were ordered to their local security and intelligence branches. Those who agreed to return to work were released. Twenty-five who refused were detained. Police in Ramallah told visiting representatives of the Al Haq organisation (the West Bank affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva) that their orders had come from the president's office.

West Bank teachers in government schools earn between Pounds 185 and Pounds 225 per month - well below the poverty line of Pounds 465. Their industrial action began earlier this year with the escalating cancellation of selected lessons. It involved both the General Union of Palestinian Teachers, and a new organisation, co-ordinated by a 25-member Higher Co-ordinating Committee (HCC).

The General Union ended its action when the Palestinian Authority (PA) offered a 10 per cent pay hike, and agreed to cancel a 5 per cent pay cut imposed on public sector workers.

The HCC - demanding a 200 per cent pay rise, full indexation, and better benefits - pressed on, and after the breakdown of talks, and the (short-lived) suspension of 19 teachers, declared a general strike across government schools. After a stormy and unproductive meeting with president Arafat two weeks ago, the general strike continued, and the detentions began, persuading, or frightening, many teachers back to school. Facing crumbling resolve, the HCC agreed to suspend the action, and the PA promised to establish a special committee to consider the teachers' grievances.

The saga underlines the present legal vacuum - the Palestinian Legislative Council, elected last year, has yet to ratify a law to deal with such disputes. While no official explanation was given, the PA could technically, have quoted pre-1967 Jordanian law, which forbade public sector strikes.

It also illustrates Arafat's dominant role in decision-making, and what Al Haq's Hussain Daifallah describes as the actions of "a group of people (Arafat and his close associates) who have been fighting a guerilla war for years and have no experience of this kind of civil strife".

Education minister Yasser Amr told Israel Television's Arabic service that this was a political strike, backed by "foreign elements".

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