Hamas believes the strike is politically motivated.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Thousands of unpaid teachers went on strike Saturday, shutting down schools across the Palestinian territories on the first day of school -- a backlash that is testing the beleaguered Hamas-led government's ability to survive.
The government, crippled by international sanctions, has so far enjoyed public support as it weathers the 6-month-old crisis. But that may change if people conclude that Hamas' anti-Israel ideology is jeopardizing their children's education -- and hopes for a better future.
"The Hamas government is in a very bad position now," said Awwad Barghouti, who brought his son Saed to the El-Bireh high school outside the West Bank town of Ramallah, only to find it closed. "Either it concedes to the international community or it quits."
Hamas, which took office in March after winning legislative elections, has rejected international calls to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist, despite sanctions by Israel and Western donors that have bankrupted the government.
Unable to pay the government's 165,000 workers, Hamas has sought help from Muslim and Arab allies, literally carrying money into the Gaza Strip in suitcases. But it has raised only a tiny fraction of the money needed to pay back wages.
An Israeli military offensive in Gaza, launched after Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier June 25, has added to the government's troubles. Some 200 Palestinians, mostly militants, have been killed in the two-month offensive.
In a sign of Hamas' growing frustration, hundreds of gunmen deployed around schools in Gaza, Hamas' stronghold, unsuccessfully trying to persuade teachers and students to hold lessons Saturday. In the West Bank, activists from the rival Fatah party stood in front of schools to enforce the strike, shooting in the air at times.
Saturday's strike was viewed by many as a tactic by Fatah, led by the moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, to pressure Hamas to join it in a so-called national unity government. Abbas believes the alliance would force Hamas to recognize Israel, helping lift the sanctions and enable him to renew peace talks.
"This strike has nothing to do with the suffering of our people. This strike is politically motivated," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
Abbas returned to his West Bank headquarters Saturday after four days of negotiations with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, in Gaza. Presidential aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said he expects a unity government within 10 days.
Halil al-Haya, a top Hamas lawmaker who leads the party's negotiating team, said Abu Rdeneh may be too optimistic.
"We hope that the formation of this government can be reached as soon as possible, but setting times and dates is something we cannot do," he said.