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Medical workers protesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s threat to ‘import’ Indian doctors to replace striking residents. Photo by Emil Salman
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For the first time since hundreds went on strike a week ago, medical residents returned to work last night as part of a decision reached late yesterday to go back to the negotiating table and hash out their differences with the treasury.

The decision came in response to a High Court of Justice proposal that the residents resume talks with the Finance Ministry to discuss their desire to abrogate a collective wage agreement reached on their behalf. The residents are also seeking an end to 26-hour shifts.

The matter came before the High Court when residents filed a petition against the National Labor Court's decision ordering them not to quit their work in the country's hospitals.

Medical students from around the country held demonstrations yesterday outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bureau, calling on him to help resolve the dispute. The demonstrators played Indian music to express their opposition to Netanyahu's reported suggestion that Indian doctors be brought in to replace the striking residents.

"I understand your desire to improve your work conditions, but no one in the State of Israel is above the law, and we're all obligated to honor court rulings, because otherwise anarchy will prevail here," Netanyahu said in a cabinet speech addressed to the medical residents. "I call on you to return to work immediately and to leave the patients out of the struggle. I will continue to monitor the negotiation process from up close."

Meanwhile, school nurses may go on strike from January 1 if they are hired as contract workers, in keeping with a tender issued by the Health Ministry two months ago.

The Nurses Union, which represents the country's 300 school nurses, called on Netanyahu and Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to retract the tender immediately. Litzman's office said the decision to privatize health care services for schoolchildren was "mistaken" and was initially made by the previous health minister, Yacov Ben Yizri - but defended it anyway.

"It's clear that today we wouldn't make such a decision," said Litzman's office in a statement. "All the same, due to the severe shortage of positions and as part of an effort to fix this, the deputy health minister came up with a plan according to which the state operates services in more complicated areas - the southern region and Ashkelon - while in the other districts, the service will be operated at this stage by a private company that will be selected by tender, in accordance with the law."

The labor dispute between the medical residents and the treasury, meanwhile, will now by mediated by the president of the Israel Mediators Association, Moti Mironi, and retired Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Zamir. Both sides have accepted Mironi and Zamir as mediators.

Although the medical residents have agreed to go back to work, they remain split over whether to continue with their protests in other ways while negotiations are underway. Doctors who support the residents' struggle are scheduled to meet today at Rebecca Sieff Hospital in Safed.

At the other end of the country, medical students held a solidarity rally at Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva yesterday.

The residents are seeking intensive daily negotiations that will last up to a week and want to shorten the term of the agreement signed by the Israel Medical Association on their behalf.

The High Court criticized the residents' request to appoint an official from Arbel, an organization that represents doctors who work in hospitals, as a representative in the negotiations. The residents agreed to withdraw the request and instead appoint a veteran doctor who is not an Arbel representative.

"It's important to us to bring a veteran doctor into the negotiations, to show that these aren't just issues that apply to residents," said a representative of the medical residents. "Residency is a short period, and the doctor continues to work as a specialist in the system for many years thereafter. Residents and specialists work in the same field - medicine - and there should not be a total separation between them."