Labor Unrest Tests a Fledgling Democracy

Striking Palestinian doctors are not honoring a court order to return to work, but the parliament is rallying behind them. The government in Ramallah is looking to extricate itself.

Last Wednesday, 750 Palestinian doctors employed in public sector hospitals submitted their collective resignation. They were responding to the ruling handed down Monday by the High Court of Justice that the strike was not legal and to the subsequent decision that they must return to work immediately. The Association of Public Sector Workers announced its support of the doctors' strike and warned of upcoming sanctions if the court does not revisit its ruling. We respect the court, said a representative of the association, but we also respect the strikers and support their decisions.

doctors - AP - June 13 2011

A member of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions said that the fact that the court has sided with the government, which on June 1 submitted a petition against the strikers, undermines the basic law that protects all rights, including the right to strike. He did not address the argument presented by the court, according to which the medical union did not follow proper strike procedures, as it failed to submit a written notification signed by over half of its members four weeks before it took action. While the strike may be based on legitimate demands, the court said, it is harming the public interest.

Attorneys who support the doctors say they have made a big mistake by violating the court order. They should have returned to work for one day and then resumed their strike, these attorneys say. But the strikers and their supporters say that the government has been evading negotiations with them for the past two years, and for that reason, dramatic measures were warranted. They can no longer continue bringing in meager monthly salaries of NIS 4,000-5,000, they say - and that includes doctors with seniority.

All the factions in the parliament, including those in the coalition, condemned the government for taking the issue to court and thereby undermining the basic right to strike, describing it as an insult to the doctors. The parliament announced its full support for the doctors and their just demands: raising salaries in line with the increase in the cost of living, providing additional pay for overtime, especially on holidays and in emergency situations, introducing a salary scale and salary increases in accordance with seniority and expertise, and paying bonuses to doctors in rare fields of specialization.

All this took place last week in Ramallah. In Ramallah, with its new, glass-exterior office buildings; its five-star luxury hotels; its brand new cars; its advertisements that urge consumers to take bank loans in order to fulfill their dreams of a home, a car, a washing machine and a plasma TV; its elaborate cocktail parties at conferences sponsored by foreign development agencies and devoted to helping the needy; its stylish cafes, where a cup of coffee costs NIS 13 (compare that to NIS 3 in Jenin ); and its Muqata complex, which is being rebuilt as an elegant presidential palace with guard towers covered in Jerusalem stone - or might it be Hebron stone?

This is Ramallah, a source of amazement for short-term visitors (oh, how good is life under the occupation ). But beneath the thin and shiny coating and the bustling restaurants, there are disturbing wage gaps, low-quality social services, and a general feeling that there is money, but it is not being divied up fairly.

This is Ramallah, which is being smothered by an over-abundance of international aid organizations, whose governments pay them to hand out charity money rather than combat the political circumstances (foreign rule ) that create poverty.

This is Ramallah, where, when you leave its well-kept radius, you discover that jobs in the productive sectors (industry and agriculture ) are being lost because it is impossible to sustain these activities when 60 percent of the area (Area C ) is out of bounds because of Israeli military policy and because all movement of trucks and raw materials from one place to another - every delivery, every loading and unloading - requires a permit, the stamp of approval of an Israeli soldier-clerk, an examination, and being pulled off to the side.

Palestinian doctors have been disrupting work at public hospitals since April. The government decision at the end of April to appeal to the court has only served to widen the gap between the two sides. It was back then that the doctors vowed to launch a general strike on the same day that the court would address the government's petition against them.

Minister blamed

The doctors and their many supporters are also angry at Health Minister Dr. Fathi Abu Moghli, who questioned their concern for their patients. Doctors and parliamentarians say that, in fact, the case is quite reversed: The strike is meant to prevent the flight of doctors overseas and the refusal of qualified new doctors to join the public sector.

Whether coincidentally or not, on Thursday a parliamentary investigative committee called on Abu Moghli to resign as minister and as president of the Health Council, citing financial and administrative irregularities. (The Health Council is a supra-governmental body established by law in 2006 to supervise and improve health care in public and private institutions. ) The committee began operating before the doctors' strike and said it would submit its findings to the committee established to fight corruption. Abu Moghli responded by saying that this committee has no legal standing because the Palestinian Legislative Committee has not been active for several years (incidentally, there are those who say that the government in which he serves also has no legal standing because it was officially dispersed about two years ago ).

Given the overwhelming public support for the strikers, the government has begun to show signs of capitulation. Although it continues to demand that the strikers return to work, it is now proposing that the two sides embark on an "open dialogue" about all the doctors' demands. And yes, the government secretary general acknowledges, the public sector service law is, indeed, in need of renewal and change.

The sanctity of the right to strike is one of the legacies of the Palestinian struggle. This legacy clashes with the government's "board of directors" mentality, which is trapped in the mindset of the donor countries, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We send our greetings to the strikers.