In a heated press conference outside Gaza’s Shifa Hospital on Thursday, striking Gaza health sector workers rejected any and all attempts by the so-called Palestinian Unity government to categorize the workforce into political factions in order to carry out discriminatory policies towards them.
“For seven years health workers of all factions have been working together to provide services to all Palestinians, to provide protection for their lives and fill the gaps created by the division,” said Mohammed Siyam, director of the Gaza Public Employees Union. “The government should admit that we are all legitimate employees – this is our main demand.”
Angry that some workers have already been dismissed, not based on poor work performance or because they are surplus to needs but based on their alleged political affiliation or because they were appointed by the Hamas government, the strikers were at pains to point out that the health sector is one of the few areas throughout the period of division in which factional interests have been secondary.
Stressing that they were employed for their professional skills, and that their primary purpose and focus is first and foremost to provide health care to all who need it, they are outraged that political factors are being introduced into a sector that is charged with saving all lives, not just those of a particular group.
“We have been performing the same role and doing the same job and we haven’t failed them once, even though we work with such limited resources,” said pharmacist Iman Dawood, who was employed after the Hamas government came to power.
The situation is even more incomprehensible to senior medical staff, many of whom who have worked in the sector under several government administrations, including both Fatah and Hamas.
Specialist radiation oncologist Dr Awad Aeshan has worked at Shifa for over ten years, and to say he is disappointed with the new government’s attitude towards medical professionals would be an understatement.
“It is the logistic and moral responsibility of any government to pay the salaries of all of its workers,” he said, “The new government was formed and accredited by the US, the European Union and the Arab entities. From my point of view, they should not discriminate between the workers of Ramallah and the workers of Gaza.”
Patients, too, are incensed with the current situation. While the emergency department remains open, those arriving for outpatients’ appointments or elective surgery are turned away because of the strike, and because all elective surgery has been cancelled due to lack of medications and medical supplies – through the failure of the Ramallah government to ensure timely provision of these items.
One woman had brought her daughter for surgery to be performed by a visiting French specialist, the latest in a series of operations to repair tendon and neurological damage to her lower leg, procedures which will give the child a chance to again walk unaided – maybe even to run. Surgery which was postponed due to the strike, and the lack of supplies. But she does not blame the hospital or the workers.
“This unity government has not improved anything, it has made it worse,” she said. “Look at us here. These workers should be paid so they can do their job.”
The palpable frustration felt by staff and patients alike crosses all factions. It is considered to be as much an issue of human rights as it is of employment rights. Claiming that freedom of political belief is a human right, and has no place in employment decisions, which should be decided on the basis of qualifications and skills, the strikers are adamant that they will continue to strike until their demands are met.
As Head of the Health Professions Union Abdulqader Al Otol pointed out, the health sector has always served as an example of unity and equality, with workers of all factions, and many who belong to no factions at all, making enormous sacrifices and working under terrible conditions with extreme resource constraints to provide the best services possible to all Palestinians, without discrimination of any kind.
Expressing regret that their actions will inconvenience patients, the health workers emphasised that they have no other choice but to strike, and reassured the public that they hope it will be temporary.
“We are angels of mercy who are up all night taking care of patients,” said Abdullatif Sabbah, head of the nursing department. “We ask the Palestinian people to consider that although you are suffering, so are our children, who have no food because we have not been paid. We are not here begging for charity, but defending our legitimacy, our very existence, and our jobs which we have earned fair and square.”
The justice of their claims is undeniable – they are all skilled health professionals, contracted to provide an undeniably essential service – and they have done so.
“The right of health care workers to their salary is a red line than cannot be crossed for any reason or excuse,” said Al Otol. “It is a legitimacy issue. We are sending a clear message to Abbas and his entourage that their attitude to health workers will not be tolerated.”
The gauntlet has been thrown down – now the lives of thousands of Gazans hang on the unity government’s response – and sense of justice.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.