Israel says Hamas curbed Gaza protests after Egyptian warning

Relatives mourn during the funeral of a Palestinian, who was killed during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border, in the central Gaza Strip May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian protests on the Gaza-Israel border have dropped off over the past two days, with Israel on Wednesday pointing to what it said were Egyptian efforts to restore calm after dozens of Palestinians were killed by Israeli gunfire.

Gaza’s dominant Islamist Hamas movement denied that it was under pressure from neighboring Egypt to scale back the six-week-old demonstrations, and said they would continue, although fewer Palestinians were now gathering in protest tents.

Gaza medics said two Palestinians were shot dead during Tuesday’s demonstrations along the 51 km (32 mile) border. On Monday, 60 were killed in a far greater turnout on the day the United States relocated its Israel embassy to Jerusalem.

Pushing back against foreign censure of its army’s actions, Israel has – with Washington’s backing – accused Hamas of using civilians as cover for attacks across the frontier fence and to distract from Gaza’s internal problems. Hamas denies this.

Angered by the U.S. embassy move and the Gaza bloodshed, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and consul to Istanbul, Ankara said on Wednesday. Israel responded to its envoy’s expulsion on Tuesday by expelling Turkey’s Jerusalem consul.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry announced the recall for consultations of its envoys in Romania, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic, citing those EU members’ participation in an official Israeli reception on Sunday for a U.S. delegation that inaugurated the American Embassy in Jerusalem.

There has been little Israeli domestic dissent at the lethal tactics around Gaza, where in the last decade Israel has fought three wars against Hamas, a group sworn to its destruction.

Dubbed the March of Return, the protests were launched on March 30 to demand Palestinian access to family lands or homes lost to Israel during its founding in a 1948 war. Larger crowds have flocked to the border after Muslim prayers on Fridays.

Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, maintain a de facto blockade on Gaza which has reduced its economy to a state of collapse during more than a decade of Hamas rule and repeated war with Israel.

Two million people live in the narrow strip, most stateless descendants of refugees who fled or were driven out of homes in Israel at the time of its founding. They suffer from what the World Bank says is one of the highest rates of unemployment on earth, and say the blockade makes rebuilding impossible.

Gaza analyst Akram Attallah, pointing to the smaller number of protesters since Monday’s deaths, said: “I can see there is a retreat because of the Israeli bloody response … but Friday will represent an indicator to where things are going.”

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh made a brief visit on Sunday to Egypt, which has sought to act as a broker between the Islamists and other Palestinian factions, as well as Israel.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said an Egyptian intelligence chief, whom he did not name, warned Haniyeh that Cairo “knows and has proof” that Hamas was funding the protests and sending people to the border fence to serve “as living ammunition, women and children instead of shells and rockets”.

HOLDING FAST

The Egyptian official “made unequivocally clear to him (Haniyeh) that if this continues, Israel will respond and take far harsher steps, and Egypt will stand by and will not help,” Katz told Israel Radio in an interview.

“Haniyeh returned to Gaza, Hamas gave an order … and miraculously, this spontaneous protest by a public that could not handle the situation any more dissipated.”

There was no immediate response from Egypt to Katz’s statements, which Hamas dismissed as false.

“There is no mediation. The marches will continue until our people achieve their goals,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

At a news conference at a protest encampment on Wednesday, Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, urged people to take part in mass rallies on Friday.

But the start on Thursday of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours, could limit the scale of the demonstrations.

In a statement issued at the news conference, the factions said the fasting would be taken into account. They said marches would continue through early June.

Organisers say the Gaza protests are civilian actions, noting the absence of Israeli casualties, compared to 107 Palestinian dead and thousands of wounded. Israel disputes this. The army said 14 of those killed on Monday were shot while firing on Israeli troops or trying to blow up the fence.

In Jerusalem, following the U.S. lead, Guatemala opened its embassy in the city on Wednesday. Paraguay is slated to do the same next week.

Most countries keep their embassies in Tel Aviv, however, saying the status of the holy city should be decided in peace talks between Israel and Palestinians, which want to have their own capital there. Those talks have been stalled since 2014.

Israel regards all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector captured in the 1967 Middle East, as its capital. Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they want to establish in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israeli forces kill 28 in Gaza protests as anger mounts over U.S. Embassy

A female Palestinian demonstrator gestures during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – Israeli forces killed at least 28 Palestinians along the Gaza border on Monday, health officials said, as demonstrators streamed to the frontier on the day the United States prepared to open its embassy in Jerusalem.

It was the highest Palestinian single-day death toll since a series of protests dubbed the “Great March of Return” began at the border with Israel on March 30 and since a 2014 Gaza war.

The health officials said 900 Palestinians were wounded, about 450 of them by live bullets.

Tens of thousands gathered at the frontier on Monday, some of them approaching Israel’s border fence – a line Israeli leaders vowed Palestinians would not be allowed to breach. Black smoke from tyres set alight by demonstrators rose in the air.

“Today is the big day when we will cross the fence and tell Israel and the world we will not accept being occupied forever,” said Gaza science teacher Ali, who declined to give his last name.

“Many may get martyred today, so many, but the world will hear our message. Occupation must end,” he said.

A Palestinian demonstrator reacts during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian demonstrator reacts during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Later in the day, Israeli leaders and a U.S. delegation including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and President Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, were due to attend the opening of the embassy relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“A great day for Israel,” the U.S. president, who stoked Arab anger by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, said in a tweet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in lockstep with Trump over fulfilling a long-standing U.S. promise to move the embassy to the holy city and over the president’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last week, echoed the sentiment.

“What a moving day for the people of Israel and the State of Israel,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

The 28 Palestinian dead on Monday included a 14-year-old boy, a medic and a man in a wheelchair who had been pictured on social media using a slingshot.

The Israeli military identified three of those killed as armed militants whom it said tried to place explosives near the fence in the southern Gaza Strip.

The latest casualties raised the Palestinian death toll to 73 since the protests started six weeks ago. No Israeli casualties have been reported.

“The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) will act forcefully against any terrorist activity and will operate to prevent attacks against Israelis,” the military said in a statement.

The killings have drawn international criticism, but the United States has echoed Israel in accusing Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement of instigating violence, an allegation it denies.

“LONG OVERDUE”

Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East peace envoy, said on Twitter that “taking the long-overdue step of moving our Embassy is not a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace deal. Rather, it is a necessary condition for it.”

But Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah accused the United States of “blatant violations of international law”.

The Palestinians, who want their own future state with its capital in East Jerusalem, have been outraged by Trump’s shift from previous administrations’ preference for keeping the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv pending progress in peace efforts.

Those talks have been frozen since 2014. Other international powers worry that the U.S. move could also inflame Palestinian unrest in the occupied West Bank, which Israel captured along with East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.

The protests are scheduled to culminate on Tuesday, the day Palestinians mourn as the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” when, in 1948, hundreds of thousands of them were driven out of their homes or fled the fighting around Israel’s creation.

“Choosing a tragic day in Palestinian history (to open the Jerusalem embassy) shows great insensibility and disrespect for the core principles of the peace process,” Hamdallah wrote.

Most countries say the status of Jerusalem – a sacred city to Jews, Muslims and Christians – should be determined in a final peace settlement and that moving their embassies now would prejudge any such deal.

But Guatemala, which received support from Israel in its counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1980s, plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Its ambassador visited the new site, in an office building in the western part of the city, on Monday. Paraguay is to follow suit later this month.

In London, the British government said it had no plans to move its Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and said it disagreed with the U.S. decision to do so.

The Russian government said it feared the embassy move would increase tensions across the Middle East.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Protests for and against gun ownership expected at NRA meeting in Dallas

A cap and shirt are displayed at the booth for the National Rifle Association (NRA) at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Lisa Maria Garza

DALLAS (Reuters) – Police are bracing for a significant amount of protests for and against guns during the National Rifle Association’s meeting in Dallas this weekend following a spate of mass shootings, pro gun-control marches, and November’s congressional elections sharpening an always volatile debate.

An estimated 80,000 gun-lovers will be in the city for the NRA’s annual convention. President Donald Trump is expected to address the NRA leadership on Friday, the first day of the three-day meeting, and Vice President Mike Pence also is scheduled to attend the convention.

The powerful gun lobby, which boasts 5 million members, faces an invigorated gun-control movement this year that has sought to curb the NRA’s influence since a man shot dead 17 people at a Florida high school on Feb. 14.

Dallas police were hoping for the “highest level of decorum and civility” from the demonstrations, which will include a “die-in” protest outside the convention hall on Friday, when Trump is due to speak.

“We will not tolerate property destruction. We will not tolerate violent behavior,” Dallas Police Assistant Chief Paul Stokes said at a news conference on Wednesday.

The gun debate in America shifted after a 19-year-old former student used a semiautomatic rifle to kill 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Students who survived became national figures by calling for gun control legislation and a check on the NRA’s influence. Florida quickly passed a law raising the legal age for buying rifles and imposing a three-day waiting period on gun sales while also allowing the arming of some school employees.

Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway had even urged the NRA to find another city for its annual meeting. Caraway is calling on the NRA to discuss strategies that will curb gun violence.

“In Dallas, gun violence survivors, students and activists are laser-focused on harnessing the momentum from the recent March for Our Lives events to push for gun safety and create lasting policy reform,” said Cassidy Geoghegan, a spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, one of the leading U.S. gun control groups.

Guns are banned from Friday’s leadership forum because of U.S. Secret Service protocol for protecting the president but elsewhere attendees will be able to carry weapons throughout “15 acres of guns and gear” exhibits at the convention center.

Across the street from the center, a coalition of six local gun rights groups plan to hold a counterprotest on Saturday that they expect to draw several hundred people. Participants are encouraged to openly carry sidearms, instead of rifles and body armor, in an effort to appear more approachable.

“Gun control supporters have gone largely unchallenged in the protest arena as of late,” the counterprotest’s organizers wrote on Facebook. “It is time to stand up peacefully and show the media that Gun Rights matter to Texans and that we are not just the fringe.”

Bipartisan support is increasing in favor of stronger gun regulations, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in March. Fifty-four percent of Americans support stricter gun control policies such as background checks on gun purchasers and banning so-called assault rifles.

(Reporting Lisa Maria Garza; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Grant McCool and Bill Trott)

Arizona governor signs bill to boost teachers’ wages amid strike

The U.S. and Arizona flags flutter in the wind in Fountain Hills, Arizona, U.S. on September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ricardo Arduengo

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) – Arizona’s governor signed a budget bill on Thursday that will boost teachers’ wages by 20 percent over the next three years, after dozens of the state’s school districts canceled classes as part of a strike to demand pay raises.

Tens of thousands of Arizona teachers, whose pay is more than $10,000 below the national average of $59,000 per year, have held a week-long walkout that has been the largest teachers’ strike in U.S. history and has kept most of state’s 1.1 million public school students out of class.

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state legislature worked through the night to pass the $10.4 billion budget. Outside, hundreds of red-clad teachers held a overnight rally, local media reported.

The bill allocates more than $600 million for salary increases, meaning teachers would get raises of nearly 10 percent this year and about five percent in each of the following two years.

“Arizona teachers have earned a raise, and this plan delivers,” Ducey said in a statement issued as he signed the bill. “This plan not only provides our teachers with a 20 percent increase in pay by school year 2020, it also provides millions in flexible dollars to improve our public education system,” added Ducey, a Republican.

The budget also includes about $371 million over five years to restore cuts imposed on education spending during the U.S. recession that ended in 2009, starting with $100 million this fiscal year, according to state officials. This figure is far less than the $1.1 billion teachers say has been cut from their budgets since the recession.

Although the budget bill was passed, districts in Phoenix, Tucson and Tempe, along with more than three dozen districts throughout the state, had already notified parents and local media that classes were canceled on Thursday, according to the Arizona Republic newspaper.

The protests are part of a national teacher action that began in West Virginia and spread to other Republican-controlled states, including Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Walkout organizers in Arizona had previously said they could not support the budget, but recognized it was likely the best offer they would get.

(Reporting by David Schwartz and Andrew Hay; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry)

‘Teachers’ Spring’ forcing lawmakers to find money for schools

FILE PHOTO: Participants take part in a march in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., April 26, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Christy Chavis/File Photo via REUTERS

(Reuters) – It has been called the “Teachers’ Spring” in the United States, with educators from five states staging an unprecedented wave of protests demanding increases in pay and school budgets.

Encouraged by progressive resistance to President Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement, the protests by the nation’s teachers, more than three-quarters of whom are women, mark the first statewide walkouts since the 1990s.

Some educators have likened their movement to the “Arab Spring”, a series of anti-government uprisings that hit Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East beginning in 2010.

The movement has already prompted lawmakers to allocate pay increases for teachers and more money for schools in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Colorado, while Arizona’s legislature is also trying to hammer out a deal.

WHY THEY BEGAN

The strikes started in West Virginia in February and then spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona, all of them Republican-controlled states that put limits on education spending during the 2007-2009 recession and never fully removed them. Teachers in Colorado, which has a Democratic governor, walked out last week.

According to the National Education Association, a group representing public school teachers nationwide, the average teacher salary in the United States decreased by four percent from 2008‒09 to 2017‒18, after inflation adjustment.

The West Virginia strike, which shut schools for almost two weeks, ended with a five percent pay raise. Teachers in Oklahoma returned to classrooms after the legislature passed its first major tax increases in a quarter century, raising about $450 million in revenue for education.

Arizona teachers have sought a 20 percent pay rise. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on Friday announced a deal with state legislative leaders to raise teachers’ pay 20 percent by 2020, but it was unclear how the money would be raised.

SUPPORT FOR TEACHERS

Teachers’ demands for pay increases have gained widespread public support and won bi-partisan attention from legislators ahead of November midterm elections.

But conservative groups, who oppose education funding increases through tax increases, point to data from education reform group EdChoice showing that nationwide, per-pupil funding adjusted for inflation rose 27 percent between 1992 and 2014 as schools added ranks of non-teaching support staff.

These conservative groups say school districts need to cut back on non-teaching staff rather than seek bigger budgets.

WHICH STATES COULD BE NEXT TO SEE A WALKOUT?

The protests have been largely driven by social media, rather than union leadership, allowing activists to organize rapidly. Arizona’s movement began with a Facebook page that encouraged teachers to show up for work wearing red – the color of the movement.

They have moved West through states where teacher pay is among the lowest in the country, per-pupil funding has fallen in real terms since the recession and where state legislatures largely control teacher salaries. Other states with a similar profile include Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, New Mexico, Utah and South Dakota, according to a study by Brookings Institution analyst Michael Hansen.

A teachers’ group in North Carolina has called for a march on the state capitol on May 16. At the same time, legislatures for states such as South Dakota and Alabama have recently voted to increase teacher pay, possibly heading off protests.

Walkouts crossed a political divide when they spread to Colorado, where Democrats control the governorship and lower house and Republicans hold the senate. Other states with mixed political control and relatively low teacher pay include New Mexico and Nevada.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Robert Birsel)

Israeli troops kill four Palestinians in fourth week of protests

A demonstrator gestures as he hurls stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

y Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot dead four Palestinians and wounded 12 in renewed unrest on the Gaza-Israel border on Friday as a series of mass protests in the enclave reached its half-way mark.

Some Palestinians brought wire-cutters to cut through the border fence. As the crowd grew, Israeli soldiers called out warnings in Arabic over loudspeakers to individuals who approached the border fence.

Demonstrators use a large slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Demonstrators use a large slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Despite the warnings, two Palestinians were killed and 12 wounded by Israeli gunfire, Palestinian health officials said, bringing the death toll in the past few weeks of protests to at least 33. Several hundred people have also been wounded by Israeli sharpshooters.

Away from the border, Israeli-American Hollywood actress Natalie Portman announced she would not attend a ceremony in Israel to accept a million-dollar prize because of “distressing” events in the country.

The protests have been staged every Friday for the past month to push demands for Palestinian refugees to regain ancestral homes in what is now Israel. They are expected to culminate on May 15.

The Israeli military said that in the latest incident, about 3,000 Palestinians were rioting and tried to approach what it called security infrastructure. Troops responded “with riot dispersal means and are firing in accordance with the rules of engagement,” it said.

The use of live fire has drawn international criticism but Israel says it is protecting its borders and takes such action when protesters come too close to the border fence.

It accuses Hamas, the Islamist militant group which rules Gaza, of staging riots and trying to carry out attacks. Although the main protest campaign is intended to be peaceful, Gazans have hurled stones and burning tyres near the border fence.

A Palestinian holds a dummy depicting an Israeli soldier during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A Palestinian holds a dummy depicting an Israeli soldier during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, east of Gaza City April 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Some protesters on Friday fitted kites with cans of flammable liquids which they flew across the border to start fires in Israel.

“We aim to distract the soldiers from shooting and wounding or killing our people. Israeli soldiers will be worried those fire-kites may fall on their heads or torch bushes around them,” said Mohammad Abu Mustafa, 17, who lost his right leg a few months ago after being shot by an Israeli soldier.

“These kites also torch bushes and trees and not only cause them losses, but keep them busy trying to put out fires,” he said, leaning on crutches.

Early in the morning, the Israeli military used a new tactic, dropping leaflets into Gaza warning residents to not approach the border.

“The Hamas terror organization is taking advantage of you in order to carry out terror attacks. The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) is prepared for all scenarios. Stay away from the fence and do not attempt to harm it,” said the leaflets scattered by Israeli aircraft in areas along the border.

Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, denies this.

PACKED IN

More than 2 million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal enclave. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains tight control of its land and sea borders. Egypt also restricts movement in and out of Gaza on its border.

The protest campaign, dubbed The Great March of Return, is leading up to May 15, when Palestinians mark Nakba Day, or the Day of Catastrophe, commemorating their displacement around the time of Israel’s founding in 1948.

It takes place at a time of growing frustration over the prospects for an independent Palestinian state. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for several years and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have expanded.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to recognize disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital further fueled Palestinian anger.

In an apparent sign of concern over the bloodshed on the border, the actress Natalie Portman, who was born in Jerusalem, said she would not attend a prize ceremony in Israel.

In a statement, the Genesis Prize Foundation quoted a representative for Portman as saying: “Recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.”

It gave no further details of her reasons. But the foundation said it “admires her humanity, and respects her right to publicly disagree with the policies of the government of Israel”.

Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, suggested the actress was supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to isolate Israel economically over its treatment of Palestinians. Israel sees the BDS movement as an attempt to delegitimise it.

The Genesis Prize is awarded to individuals for excellence in their professional fields and “who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values”.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing Angus MacSwan)

Thousands of Palestinians protest at Gaza-Israel border, one dead

A girl hurls stones during clashes with Israeli troops at a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA BORDER (Reuters) – A Palestinian was killed and more than 200 others wounded during clashes with Israeli troops as thousands gathered in protest along the Gaza-Israel border on Friday, Gaza officials said.

Palestinians hurled stones and burning tyres near the frontier fence, where Israeli army sharpshooters are deployed. Some in the crowd threw firebombs and an explosive device and tried cross into Israel, according to the Israeli military.

Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland as smoke rises during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland as smoke rises during clashes with Israeli troops at the Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian medical officials said Israeli troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing one and wounding 220.

An Israeli military spokesman said troops were being confronted by rioters and responded “with riot dispersal means while also firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

Palestinians had arrived en masse at tented camps near the frontier as a protest dubbed “The Great March of Return” – evoking a longtime call for refugees to regain ancestral homes in what is now Israel – moved into its third week.

Israeli troops have shot dead 31 Gaza Palestinians and wounded hundreds since the protests began, drawing international criticism of the lethal tactics used against them.

On Friday, groups of youths waved Palestinian flags and burnt hundreds of tyres and Israeli flags near the fenced-off border after Friday prayers. At one camp east of Gaza City, youths carried on their shoulders a coffin wrapped in an Israeli flag bearing the words “The End of Israel”.

Israel has declared a no-go zone close to the Gaza border fence.

No Israelis have been killed during the demonstrations, and human rights groups say the Israeli military has used live fire against demonstrators who pose no immediate threat to life.

Israel says it is doing what it must to defend its border, and to stop any of the protesters getting across the fence.

The planned six-week protest has revived a longstanding demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to towns and villages from which their families fled, or were driven out, when the state of Israel was created 70 years ago.

The protest began on March 30, and is expected to culminate on May 15.

A Palestinian protester takes cover during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

A Palestinian protester takes cover during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

“CATASTROPHE” OF 1948

That is the day Palestinians will mark the 70th anniversary of the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced amid violence culminating in war between newly created Israel and its Arab neighbors in May 1948.

Successive Israeli governments have ruled out any right of return, fearing the country would lose its Jewish majority.

“Some people believe we are idiots to think the Israelis will allow us in, they may not, but we will not stop trying to return,” said a protester, 37-year-old civil servant Ahmed, as he stood on a hilltop overlooking the Israeli fence.

Like most of the 2 million Palestinians packed into the tiny, impoverished Gaza Strip, Ahmed is a descendant of refugees from Jaffa, a coastal town in Israel just south of Tel Aviv.

“No peace, no jobs, no unity and no future, so what difference would death make? If we are going to die, then let it not be in vain,” said Ahmed, who refused to give his full name, fearing Israeli reprisals.

The Israeli government accuses Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza largely since Israeli soldiers and settlers withdrew in 2005, of having instigated the protests and of using them as cover to launch attacks.

“Israel will continue to defend its borders and its citizens. Your country would do the same,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said on Twitter.

The Israeli military has displayed video footage in which the frontier fence is seen being cut and breached during the recent clashes, with, Israel says, explosives planted there to target its troops.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Some Oklahoma teachers find the grass really is greener in Texas

Former Oklahoma teacher Chelsea Price, 34, helps a 2nd grade student with an assignment on an iPad in her classroom in Grapevine, Texas, U.S., April 4, 2018. Courtesy Chelsea Price/Handout via REUTERS

By Lisa Maria Garza

GRAPEVINE, Texas (Reuters) – After years of poor pay, supply shortages and overcrowded classes, former Oklahoma teacher Chelsea Price decided the best way to pursue the profession she loves was to leave her home state and head south to Texas.

The harsh economic realities of teaching in Oklahoma, where school salaries are some of the lowest in the United States, have created an exodus to neighboring states where wages are higher.

As a consequence, Oklahoma is grappling with a teacher shortage that has forced school districts to cut curricula and deploy nearly 2,000 emergency-certified instructors as a stop-gap measure.

“It just got to the point where it was really defeating,” said Price, 34, who last year moved to the Dallas suburb of Grapevine with her husband and 10-year-old daughter to start a job as a second-grade teacher.

Crossing the Red River that separates Oklahoma and Texas meant a salary increase of about 40 percent for Price, who has a master’s degree. She saw few prospects of improving the lot of her family by staying put.

Price earned around $30,000 a year when she began teaching in Oklahoma. When she left 11 years later, she was earning just under $40,000. At her new position, Price earns about $55,000.

The benefits transcend salary. There is a cap on class sizes and every student has an iPad, which Price said makes her job easier.

In Oklahoma, where educators statewide walked off the job this week to protest years of low pay and budget cuts to the school system, teacher complaints range from decaying infrastructure, students’ having to share worn-out textbooks and teachers’ having to dip into their own pockets to buy supplies for underfunded classes.

In contrast, the northern Dallas suburbs, an hour or less south of the Oklahoma border, enjoy increased spending on schools as population growth in recent years, which has outpaced nearly every area of the United States, has driven up local tax revenues.

Grapevine, with about 50,000 people, has a refurbished main street, a major resort hotel and easy commutes to major employers in Dallas and Fort Worth. Like many of the northern Dallas-area suburbs, new parks, schools and businesses are springing up in a region seen as a place of relatively low crime, good employment prospects and affordable housing.

Oklahoma City and Tulsa also have relatively low unemployment rates and spectacularly refurbished urban areas, but median household income and wages are far lower than in the northern Dallas suburbs.

Price and other teachers from Oklahoma have followed the money.

“If I can find a better situation for all of us, then why wouldn’t I?” she said.

Since 2010, Texas has seen about 3,500 teachers from Oklahoma apply for teaching certificates, the most of any state, according to the Texas Education Agency.

“LOSING OUR BEST, BRIGHTEST”

About 11 percent of Oklahoma teachers overall leave the state or profession every year, according to data from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, an umbrella group.

More than 80 percent leave over low pay, according to the data. In constant dollar terms, the pay for Oklahoma teachers has dropped by about 15 percent over the last 25 years, federal data showed.

“Oklahoma’s teacher shortage has been devastating for children. When schools can’t find qualified teachers, they either must increase class sizes or hire under-qualified, under-prepared teachers,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the association.

Every state bordering Oklahoma offers higher wages for teachers, with mean wages in the neighboring states about $8,600 to $16,000 higher, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Striking teachers in Oklahoma are seeking a $10,000 raise.

Those leaving are often teachers who have several years of experience and generally hold a master’s degree or higher, according to a survey from Theresa Cullen, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Oklahoma. The average salary increase for those who fled to other states was about $19,000, the survey showed.

“We are losing our best, brightest and most prepared,” Cullen said.

Of neighboring states, Texas offers the highest mean wages. Ginny Duncan, 24, decided to relocate there two years after starting her teaching career at an elementary school in Tulsa.

“I’m moving to Texas this summer because I can’t afford to live here,” she said in a telephone interview.

Duncan, who holds degrees in both special education and regular education, earns about $32,000 a year as a teacher and needs to work three summer jobs to make ends meet. If she can land a similar teaching job in the Dallas area, she could earn about $20,000 a year more.

“I love teaching so much,” Duncan said. “I wanted to be a teacher my entire life. I have a special passion for special needs kids.” But her Oklahoma salary “makes it so hard to actually do it.”

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)

Israeli fire kills Palestinian at Gaza border, with more frontier protests ahead

Palestinian protesters carry tires to burn them during clashes with Israeli troops at Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli fire killed a Palestinian at the Gaza border on Thursday and another died of wounds suffered several days ago, health officials said, bringing the number of Palestinian dead in a week of frontier protests and violence to 19.

The Israeli military said one of its aircraft targeted an armed militant near the security fence along the Gaza Strip.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians began a six-week-long protest last Friday in tent encampments along the fenced border of the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, an enclave of two million ruled by the militant Hamas Islamist group.

The demonstrators are pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.

The latest deaths are likely to add to international concerns over the violence, which human rights groups have said involved live fire against unarmed demonstrators posing no immediate threat to life. Israel says it is doing what is necessary to defend its border and prevent it from being breached.

Sixteen Palestinians died after being shot by Israeli troops on the first day of the protest, Palestinian medical officials said, and another was killed on Tuesday.

A 33-year-old man, hit by Israeli fire a few days ago near one of the tent cities, died on Thursday, the health officials said.

The military said that during the protests its troops had used live fire only against people trying to sabotage the border fence or rolling burning tyres and throwing rocks.

Some of the dead were identified by Palestinian militant groups as members.

LETHAL FORCE

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into Friday’s deaths and appealed to those involved to refrain from any act that could lead to further casualties or place civilians in harm’s way.

U.N. deputy political affairs chief Taye-Brook Zerihoun, commenting on the violence, has said lethal force should only be used as a last resort.

Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, described most of those killed as “terrorists …active in the armed wing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad”. The two groups advocate the destruction of Israel, which along with the West, regards them as terrorist organizations.

Many of the demonstrators who turned out for the start of the protest campaign returned to their homes and jobs over the week. But organizers expect large crowds again on Friday, the Muslim sabbath.

Hamas announced on Thursday it would pay $3,000 to the family of anyone killed in the protests, $500 to Palestinians critically wounded and $200 to those who sustain more minor injuries.

Israeli leaders have said payments by Palestinian authorities to the families of militants killed or imprisoned by Israel encourages attacks on Israelis. Palestinians revere brethren killed in the conflict with Israel as martyrs.

Visiting the frontier this week, Lieberman warned protesters “against continuing the provocation and said that “every person who comes close to the fence is endangering their lives”.

Protesters have been stocking up on tyres and say they intend to burn thousands of them at the border and also use mirrors and lasers to distract Israeli sharpshooters across the frontier on Friday.

Speaking on Army Radio, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said: “We are prepared for every scenario, even an attempt to cause sharpshooters to lose focus.”

The protest action is set to wind up on May 15, when Palestinians mark the “Naqba”, or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes during violence that culminated in war in May 1948 between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing it would lose its Jewish majority.

Israel-Palestinian peace talks have been frozen since 2014.

The Palestinians are furious at U.S. President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and to move the U.S. Embassy to the city. Its eastern half was taken by Israel in a 1967 war and is wanted by Palestinians for the capital of a future state.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by William Maclean)

‘We’re not leaving!’ Oklahoma teachers in second day of protests

FILE PHOTO - Teachers pack the state Capitol rotunda to capacity, on the second day of a teacher walkout, to demand higher pay and more funding for education, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton and Nick Oxford

TULSA, Okla./OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Oklahoma teachers walked out of classes for a second straight day on Tuesday, closing schools in the state’s two biggest cities, as they demanded higher state spending on public education in the latest U.S. labor action by educators.

Hundreds of teachers crowded into the state capital, Oklahoma City, chanting “fund our schools” and “we’re not leaving” as they lobbied lawmakers to pass a tax package that would raise another $200 million for the state school budget. Teachers, parents and students staged sympathy rallies around the state.

The protests reflected rising discontent after years of sluggish or declining public school spending in Oklahoma, which ranked 47th among the 50 U.S. states in per-student expenditure, and 48th in average teacher salaries in 2016, according to the National Education Association.

Teachers arrive at the the state Capitol for the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

Teachers arrive at the the state Capitol for the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

The Oklahoman newspaper listed about 70 schools or districts that were shuttered on Tuesday. The walkouts follow a two-week job action in West Virginia that led lawmakers last month to vote to raise teachers’ pay. Educators in Kentucky also staged walkouts against years of stagnant or reduced budgets by a Republican-controlled legislature and most returned to their classrooms or scheduled spring break holidays on Tuesday.

Teachers in Arizona have threatened similar job actions.

Frederick Smitherman, 48, who teaches eighth grade at Will Rogers Early Junior High School in Tulsa, joined teachers, parents and students in a satellite protest on Tuesday.

“We all pay taxes and expect our legislators to do what we voted them in to do,” Smitherman said. “What else are teachers supposed to do besides yell and scream? We can vote them out but voting one out just brings a bad one in instead. My hope is that this doesn’t fall on deaf ears.”

Monday’s walkout by up to 30,000 educators in Oklahoma forced the cancellation of classes for some 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students, according to teachers’ union officials, who estimated that a similar number of teachers took part in Tuesday’s action.

Oklahoma’s first major tax hike in a quarter century was approved by legislators last week and signed into law by Governor Mary Fallin – a $450 million revenue package intended to raise teachers’ salaries by about $6,100 a year and avert a strike.

Teachers said that package fell short and demanded lawmakers reverse spending cuts that have forced some districts to impose four-day school weeks. The $200 million package they were lobbying for on Tuesday would increase hotel and capital gains taxes.

“Lawmakers have left significant funding on the table – funding that has bipartisan support but is being held up for political reasons,” the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said in a statement.

Oklahoma secondary school teachers had an annual mean wage of $42,460 as of May 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The minimum salary for a first-year teacher was $31,600, state data showed.

The Oklahoma strikes on Monday coincided with a second day of walkouts by several thousand teachers in Kentucky after legislators there passed a bill imposing new limits on the state’s underfunded public employee pension system.

Poppy Kelly, 47, a French teacher at Thomas Edison Preparatory High School in Tulsa with 23 years of teaching experience, said boosts in spending were needed for school facilities, books and supplies as well as teacher salaries.

“Oklahoma kids for a decade are so used to not having enough or having to make do that they don’t know what ‘enough’ looks like,” Kelly said. “They want textbooks. They want chairs. They want tables that don’t have a bent leg. They want proper technology in the classrooms.”

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas and Jonathan Allen in New York; writing by Scott Malone; editing by Bernadette Baum and Bill Trott)