Tens of thousands of Palestinian government employees, who have not been paid in months, went on strike Saturday. The labor unrest poses a major challenge to the Palestinian government, led by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Some 37,000 unpaid Palestinian teachers went on strike across the West Bank and Gaza Strip on the first day of the school year. They were joined by 40,000 civil servants, who walked off the job, shutting down government offices and services. Garbage collectors went on strike earlier this week, and mounds of trash rotting in the streets have left a rancid stench in the air.
The strike is aimed at the Hamas-led Palestinian government, which has been unable to pay most salaries since it took power five months ago. Hamas is broke in the wake of international sanctions, imposed because of its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence. The United States and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
Ismail Sultan, a teacher in the West Bank, says it is an intolerable situation for government employees.
"They don't have an income. Many people do not have an income," he said.
So how do people live?
"Everybody has his ways to survive, but it's a very difficult time," he added.
The strike pits Hamas against the rival and more moderate Fatah faction, which has been working to topple the government. In the West Bank, Fatah gunmen stood in front of schools, enforcing the strike. Hamas is stronger in Gaza, but it was unable to prevent the strike there, even though militiamen urged teachers and students to go to school.
It is the first major work stoppage of its kind since Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority in March, and shows that its grip on power could be weakening. Until now, Palestinians had stood behind Hamas in protest against the international sanctions, which were seen as collective punishment. But many cash-strapped Palestinians are running out of patience, and they are questioning whether Hamas is capable of governing.