Doctors protest July 28, 2011 (Emil Salman)
Striking doctors marching to Jerusalem, July 28, 2011. Photo by Emil Salman
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Striking doctors arrived in Jerusalem on Friday morning and established a protest tent camp outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office.

The Israel Medical Association, led by chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman, intends to attempt to present Netanyahu with a petition with tens of thousands of signatures calling to "save public medicine."

Eidelman and a number of other doctors plan to remain at the tent camp until the strike is settled. Eidelman has been on a hunger strike since Monday.

Talks between the IMA and the Finance Ministry are still deadlocked, but the sides have agreed to return to the negotiating table and resume where they left off a week ago, when medical residents started their own protests. Meeting on Thursday at the Finance Ministry, representatives of the physicians and the treasury agreed to work in small groups before drafting a contract together. "But as long as the doctors have not been offered any money, there will be no breakthrough," said a figure involved in the negotiations. "The missing money has still not arrived," he added.

The marchers are planning a demonstration in the Rose Garden next to the Knesset on Sunday.

In a phone conversation on Thursday with Eidelman, President Shimon Peres asked him to end his hunger strike and return to the negotiating table. "An entire country is watching you, you have proved your leadership and courage. You are bearing an important message of advancing and improving public medicine in Israel on your shoulders, and as president I am asking you to look after your health and strength. You are dear to us," Peres told Eidelman. Eidelman thanked Peres, but said he intends to continue his hunger strike for now.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni joined the dozens of marchers on Thursday as they neared Jerusalem on Route 1. MK Rachel Adatto (Kadima ), who is also a physician, joined the protesters. She called on Netanyahu to intervene immediately to help settle the strike, while Livni said the time had come to give their support for the doctors and what they represent.

Police forced the marchers to abandon the main road near Motza, saying it was dangerous to walk along the highway.

Doctors demonstrated in support of Eidelman and the marchers on Thursday in Bat Yam, Hadera and Nahariya.

Netanyahu, who is officially the health minister, has declined to intervene in the negotiations. "The sides will return and conduct intensive discussions next week," the Finance Ministry and the IMA said in a joint statement yesterday.

Representatives of young physicians collected more than 1,000 resignation letters from residents in hospitals all over the country. The letters have been deposited with lawyers until a decision is made on how to proceed. A week ago residents began their own protest, arguing that the proposed contract favors senior doctors and does not adequately protect their interests. They threatened to resign en masse unless their demands are met.

The heads of government hospitals in the periphery sent a letter to Netanyahu on Thursday supporting the framework agreement that was almost signed a week ago.

Psychologists join protests

Trainee clinical psychologists joined the tent camp on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv on Thursday to protest against what they say is the desperate situation facing the country's clinical psychologists. Health Ministry Director General Ronni Gamzu promised to help them.

The psychologist trainees say the state is trying to destroy the public mental health service as part of its privatization drive. Patients must wait for months to see a therapist because the government agency does not employ enough psychologists, according to Lior Biton, a trainee clinical psychologist who is one of the leaders of the protest. He said the problem was not a lack of psychologists within Israel, but rather a lack of positions in the mental health service.

The psychologists are also upset about the terms of employment for trainees, which consist of halftime positions that usually pay less than NIS 2,500 a month. They must spend four years at such posts in order to obtain accreditation, and are prohibited from completing their training in two years of fulltime work. "An entire population of trainees in psychology is living in poverty," said Biton.