HEBRON â€” After not even two years on the job, Zakariya Jamal gave up teaching Arabic at a Palestinian public school to work in construction.
Government workers like Jamal have been hard-hit by the aid embargo that Western powers imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas came to power in March 2006.
Public employees receive some payments from Arab and European donors, but Jamal and other teachers say it is not enough to live on, and a growing number have turned to driving taxis and working at cafes to make ends meet.
Many foreign observers fear the embargo is starting to have long-term effects, which could further fuel instability and exacerbate the already grim situation in the territories. “They should find alternative work for all educated workers,” said Jamal, 28, as he put the finishing touches on tile flooring in a new office building in the West Bank city of Hebron. His job brings in 100 shekels ($25) a day. Palestinians hoped a unity government formed in March by ruling Hamas Islamists and Abbas’ secular Fateh faction would ease the financial crunch.
With a nod from the Bush administration, donor funds have begun to flow into an account controlled by Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, but only enough to pay about half of workers’ wages.
Birzeit University lecturer Nashat Aktash said well-educated young professionals were increasingly “tired of the situation”. “The Palestinian unity government didn’t succeed and it will never succeed” because of Israeli pressure, he said.
Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouthi said it was “sad and shameful” to see young teaching professionals leaving the schools to work as manual labourers.
Teachers are revered in Palestinian society, where the literacy rate tops 90 per cent. “The one who is to blame is the Israelis,” Barghouthi said.
Israel has been withholding Palestinian tax revenues to pressure Hamas to recognise the Jewish state, renounce violence and abide by interim peace deals.
In a speech to the Israeli parliament on Wednesday, the president of the European Parliament Hans-Gert Pottering said he was “deeply shocked by the economic, social and humanitarian conditions” there.
He appealed to Israel to “please release the Palestinian funds,” which total about $700 million, to President Mahmoud Abbas “so that he can use them to pay the teachers and police”.
A Palestinian ministry of education official said public schools in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank accept some 3,000 new teachers each year.
But the official said many of them are forced to find other jobs because the government cannot afford to pay them. After graduating from Quds University, Mohammad Sauifa went to work as a science teacher at a school near Hebron. Four months later, he was driving a taxi for a living.
“I prefer to be a taxi driver than teaching in schools without getting paid,” he said. “There are no job opportunities here and even if there is work, there is no money.” Like Jamal, Ra’ed Bashiti, 29, made the leap from teaching to construction.
“I don’t want to work for the government since they will not pay me my salary,” Bashiti said. “We have no other choice.”Â