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A month long strike by doctors in Gaza, as political factions struggle for control, came to an end last week. The move was billed as a gesture of goodwill at the end of the Muslim religious period Ramadan.
The strike began because those who were supporters of the ousted Fatah government lost their jobs under the Hamas government, which took over the Gaza Strip from Fatah in June. The new government appointed Bassem Naim as minister of health. He fired the directors of Gaza's main hospitals, who were identified with Fatah, as well as many doctors and medical personnel. They were replaced with people who identified with Hamas.
Among those who lost their jobs was Jomaa Alsaqqa, deputy director of Shifa Hospital, who had worked as a surgeon at Shifa for 20 years. “I was fired only because I support Fatah,” Dr Alsaqqa says. In the past few months he has, he says, been arrested and beaten by Hamas three times.
“After I was dismissed they threatened to kill me, to shoot me, if I entered the hospital again.” According to Dr Alsaqqa, about 600 doctors were “fired or pushed out of their jobs.”
Mahmoud Daher, the World Health Organization representative in Gaza, said that the doctors went on strike in protest at these measures. “The doctors cut their work day in the public hospitals to just three hours a day,” he said.
Mr Daher denied that the strike began with a direct order from the chairman of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who retains control in the West Bank, and who pays the doctors' salaries from Ramallah.
“Perhaps an indirect order was given, but it was the doctors' organisations that called the strike,” Mr Daher said. Nevertheless, many doctors claimed that they were “forced” to strike, on pain of losing their salaries. Mr Daher confirmed that “the salaries of over one thousand doctors were stopped during the striking, apparently because of opposition to the strike. On the other hand, many doctors who are identified with Hamas agreed to strike out of fear of losing their source of livelihood.”
In response to the strike, Hamas accused the government of Abu Mazen of attempting to bring down its regime in Gaza and of inciting Hamas supporters to civil revolt. According to the director of the crisis unit in the health ministry of the Hamas government, Dr Medhat Abas, “the hospital managers weren't fired for political reasons: they were fired because of managerial, financial, and moral corruption in the hospitals.”
Public pressure gradually increased for an end to the strike. “The population in Gaza is very poor and needs the public service,” Dr Abas said.
In an effort to bring the strike to an end, the doctors' organisations asked Hamas to leave politics out of the health system, to stop using its armed forces against medical personnel and to reverse its dismissals and political appointments. “Some of the demands were met,” Mr Daher said. “Agreement was reached on keeping politics out of the health system, but Hamas has not withdrawn the dismissals; instead, now it is simply ‘moving' people.”
Gaza's doctors decided to suspend their strike after 35 days, “temporarily, as a goodwill gesture for the holy month of Ramadan,” Dr Alsaqqa explained.
“In the coming days, in line with the behaviour of Hamas, we will decide whether to renew it.”