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Bar-Ilan University's medical program in Safed was approved by the Council for Higher Education yesterday, making it the fifth faculty of medicine to open a school in the Galilee.

The program, which is expected to launch in October 2011, will start with 50 Israeli medical students who began their studies abroad and will complete their three final years of study in Israel.

"This approval is an important part of the Health Ministry's plan to increase the number of doctors in Israel," ministry director general Roni Gamzu said yesterday. "At the same time, we must take action to increase the number of medical students in existing programs."

The president of Bar-Ilan University, Moshe Kaveh, welcomed the council's decision.

The medical school will operate initially in the building in Safed formerly occupied by Ziv Hospital, which will be refurbished at a cost of tens of millions of shekels. Sources at Bar-Ilan said yesterday that classrooms, 20 research labs, a library and administration offices will be built.

In the meantime, the construction of a new campus on the western edge of Safed will commence, at a cost of NIS 1.5 billion - half from state funding, and the rest from donations.

"This is a dream come true," said Silvan Shalom, the minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee. "The ministry invested great effort over the past year to get this project, which is a catalyst for change, off the ground - and today it has happened.

"This project will alter the face of the Galilee dramatically, creating 5,000 additional jobs, upgrading medical services and hospitals for the welfare of the residents in the entire Galilee, and creating the infrastructure for higher education in the area," he said.

A Galilee forum of 15 local councils also welcomed the approval. Aharon Valensi, who heads the forum, said, "For the past four years we have pushed for the advancement of the Galilee as a leading region in academia and research, and slowly we are achieving our goal."

Unlike the traditional research centers elsewhere in the country, such as those in the fields of biochemistry or microbiology, the medical school in Safed will have research centers that focus on specific diseases and ailments.

As such, it will contain a research center devoted to cancer, along with others for heart disease, gerontology, trauma, child development, infectious diseases, and more.

Combined research centers will also provide services for the more specialized centers. In addition to a bioinformatics center, which will examine genes that are responsible for specific diseases, there will be centers focused on medical ethics, medical sociology and economics.

Other topics to be included in the program will be preventive medicine, health education, environment and medicine, and the history of medicine in the traditions of the three monotheistic religions.