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The mass resignation of medical residents around the country - which was due to take effect between Sunday and Wednesday of this week - is illegal, the National Labor Court ruled in a precedent-setting decision Sunday.

Letters of resignation had been submitted by 1,067 residents following months of labor sanctions organized by the Israel Medical Association. The IMA struck an agreement with the Finance Ministry settling the dispute with the country's doctors, but on an independent basis, and so the medical residents pressed their own demands.

In the wake of Sunday's ruling, the residents are weighing an appeal to the High Court of Justice, but those who resigned returned to work.

In another development, however, the committees representing physicians at four hospitals - Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava and the Abarbanel Mental Health Center in Bat Yam - have called on the IMA to rescind its agreement with the Finance Ministry. The groups from the hospitals claim the IMA failed to represent them in good faith in the negotiations with the government, and did not keep them informed of the details of the negotiations as they progressed.

Lawyers for the four doctors' groups claim that IMA chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman violated an agreement which they said he had given to provide details prior to the signing of any formal deal struck during the mediation efforts with the treasury. The lawyers also claimed that the IMA used incorrect data to garner public support for the agreement that was made, and said the IMA's handling of the matter constitutes grounds for a claim for damages against the association's management. Physicians' groups from a total of seven hospitals have called for Eidelman's resignation.

The National Labor Court ruling invalidating the residents' letters of resignation came two hours after the resignation of 669 residents was to have taken effect Sunday at hospitals around the country, and after health institutions had gone over to an emergency footing, on orders of the Health Ministry, to deal with the expected staff shortages.

The labor court, in a three-judge panel headed by court president Nili Arad, ruled that the residents' submission of letters of resignation constituted a collective labor action that was not authorized by the IMA, which the court said is the organization legally entrusted with representing the country's physicians.

The court ruled that the letters had no legal standing, and directed the IMA to exercise its authority over the residents and see to it that they return to work. The court added that their failure to get back on the job would constitute unauthorized absenteeism "with all of its implications."

Furthermore, the judges said the separate entity that claimed to represent the residents' interests was acting contrary to the law in advocating the resignation move. The court also barred the residents from undertaking any further collective action that runs counter to the agreement the IMA struck with the Finance Ministry.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism ) welcomed the court decision, saying it reinforces the agreement reached with the IMA. He said the latter agreement will make the health system more effective, and noted that it gives priority to medical services in outlying parts of the country and offers other benefits to all the country's doctors.

For her part, however, Meretz MK Zehava Galon called the labor court ruling a blow to workers' rights in Israel.

The court noted that the resignation letters, although due to take effect this week, were submitted before agreement was reached with the treasury, and thus it deemed them null and void. The judges also criticized the wording of the letters for failing to state clearly when the resignations were to take place. The ruling also directed criticism at senior physicians who supported the residents' resignation campaign, and assured the residents that they would get their jobs back after the labor dispute was settled.

The court's ruling on the issue of collective resignations was the first of its kind since 1976. Sharon Rabin-Margaliot, a lecturer on labor law at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said the decision had a political dimension inasmuch as it was aimed at not allowing the medical system collapse in the wake of a mass resignation of medical residents. The ruling, she noted, relies on making a distinction between permissible individual action and prohibited collective action. She cautioned, however, that the court should refrain from engaging in "collective psychology" to gauge what motivated each resignation. She added that the courts should not deem all of the resignations to be collective in nature only because they could result in the collapse of the medical system.

A young physicians' council, made up of residents, responded that the court's ruling would not be violated, although it will likely be appealed.

In describing the current situation, the group said: "[We are in] an unprecedented moral crisis in which thousands of doctors, those who resigned and those who did not resign, are declaring sharply and clearly that they cannot carry out their jobs under the existing conditions in the public health system."

Residents returned to work at 4 P.M. Sunday. They also resolved that any further labor action would be taken on an individual basis in an effort to head off the claim that they are involved in any illegal collective labor action.

In a demonstration of possible labor sanctions in the future, well over 100 residents submitted new letters of resignation Sunday, which according to their terms, would take effect in 30 days. At Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, dozens of residents announced that they would begin a hunger strike this morning, but would remain on the job. Others already began a fast Sunday.

In addition, some residents have also threatened to resign from the IMA and form a rival organization. Any organization would need to garner membership of at least 30 percent of the country's doctors if it is to claim to legally represent their interests.