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Middle East

Strike raises UN-Hamas tensions

Fears that row over school shutdown after suspension of union leader could escalate

UN schools serving 219,000 Gaza children were shut down for a second day yesterday in a union dispute that could prove a key test of the relationship between the UN's refugee agency UNRWA and Hamas.

While union leaders withdrew their earlier plan to keep the schools shut for the rest of the week, they warned that they would consider reinstating it if the agency failed to respond positively to their demand for the suspension of a senior teacher to be rescinded. UNRWA medical clinics were also closed for one day yesterday.

The strike is the third since the teacher, Suheil al-Hindi, was suspended for his involvement in events including a union festival in 2009 attended by a number of senior Hamas figures, among them Gaza's de facto prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. The agency accused Mr al-Hindi, who is head of the UN staff union in Gaza, of breaching strict rules governing extracurricular political activities by its staff.

Union activists said they were maintaining a strike of about 800 staff at UNRWA's field headquarters in Gaza City until Thursday, and would meet to consider their next steps when they had heard the results of a review by Margot Ellis, UNRWA's deputy commissioner general, of the decision to suspend Mr al-Hindi. Ms Ellis is due to report her findings by Saturday.

The stakes have been raised by widespread local publicity for the dispute. The US, which is in the forefront of the international boycott of Hamas, is the largest single donor to UNRWA, which is responsible for the education and welfare of 4.8 million Palestinian refugees spread through the occupied territories and across the region.

While Hamas and its de facto government have played little or no public role in the dispute, some observers see it as going to the heart of the leadership's desire to be treated as running a bona fide government in Gaza.

There has also been sporadic friction over the past two years between some in the faction and UNRWA, for example over the agency's successful summer camps for both boys and girls, and a plan to teach holocaust studies as part of the human rights curriculum in UN schools.

Mr al-Hindi yesterday denied he was a member of Hamas or had engaged in politics. He said of his appearance with Mr Haniyeh: "Is he a criminal?" He said the strike had been suspended because of the "political situation" in which rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes have left 12 Palestinian militants and one Israeli civilian dead.

He added: "We are for the Palestinian interest, especially health and education. We are not cancelling the strike but we want to give a chance to the UN to rectify the position." He said he was not ruling out further school stoppages if Ms Ellis failed to satisfy the union.

A spokesman for UNRWA, Chris Gunness, appealed on Sunday for teachers to call off the stoppage, respect internally agreed grievance procedures and not drag "innocent children into their escalating campaign of industrial action".