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Hamas breaks Gaza school strike led by rival Fatah
MIDEAST ISRAEL PALE 5509374
Palestinian students walk into a public school in Gaza City Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008. The ruling Hamas movement on Wednesday replaced hundreds of striking teachers with its own supporters, purging Gaza's education system of its political rivals and deepening its control of the coastal territory. - photo by Associated Press
    GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The ruling Hamas movement replaced hundreds of striking teachers with its own supporters Wednesday, purging Gaza’s schools of political rivals and deepening its control of this coastal territory.
    Labor strife this week disrupted the public school system at the start of the academic year and added to the misery in Gaza, which has suffered from international isolation and Israeli economic sanctions since the Islamic militants of Hamas violently seized power last year.
    The local teachers union, one of the last remaining strongholds of the Fatah movement in Gaza, called the strike to protest the transfer of dozens of educators to new schools. It said Hamas forced the transfers to give its supporters key posts in the education system.
    Hamas denied this, but then installed hundreds of new teachers almost immediately after the walkout began. Education Minister Mohammed Askoul estimated 2,000 of the 9,000 public school teachers had been replaced
    ‘‘Anybody who left their job will not be allowed to return,’’ Askoul said. ‘‘They have become irrelevant and cannot be trusted anymore as educators.’’
    The move ensures Gaza’s education system will now be stacked with Hamas loyalists. While the group has said it will not impose its strict Islamic views on society, its control of classrooms is likely to change the tone of instruction and create more sympathy for the group’s ideology among the territory’s 250,000 public school students.
    The dispute caused widespread confusion this week. Many parents kept their children home. Some students appeared torn, going to school but skipping class.
    ‘‘What’s happening is a joke. We came to school and the teachers told us to go home,’’ said Hussam Abdullah, 16, standing outside his school in Gaza City. ‘‘But the new (Hamas) principal says if we don’t go to school for a week, we’ll be expelled.’’
    The Hamas regime in Gaza and the Fatah-dominated administration of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank have been sharing the same educational curriculum and exams — one of the few areas the rivals had in common. But that could soon change.
    Abbas’ government, which pays teachers’ salaries, seized on the strike as a loyalty test.
    Bassam Zakarneh, a union leader, said Abbas’ government would fire teachers who accepted school promotions — because it indicated loyalty to Hamas.
    The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, an independent rights group, said the threat was effectively against any teacher who did not participate in the strike. Teachers in Gaza also saw the threat that way.
    ‘‘This is a disaster,’’ said Aly, a 47-year-old math teacher who declined to give his full name for fear of offending Hamas or Fatah. ‘‘The big losers are me and my students.’’
    Wael, a 38-year-old physics teacher and Fatah loyalist, said he felt bullied into striking.
    ‘‘My salary and future are tied to the side that pays me,’’ he said. ‘‘At the same time, I am afraid there’ll be (Hamas) procedures taken against me.’’ He declined to give his family name because he did not support the Fatah-led walkout and feared his pay would be cut.
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    Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.