Tuesday 30 August 2011

Learning Lessons From the Doctors' Strike

After 158 long days of strikes by Israel's doctors, a deal has finally been reached with the treasury over their pay and working conditions. An agreement was signed between representatives of the doctors' labour union and government officials on Thursday which changes dramatically the humiliation that doctors in the public sector have been subject to in the past. The agreement is retroactive to 2010 when the last agreement ran out, and will govern pay scales for a nine-year period.

It is shameful that it took five months of strikes by the doctors to finally convince the treasury to agree to the new deal. Under its terms, hospital doctors will receive an average pay increase of 49%. Doctors working in the periphery of the country, and doctors working in specialities which suffer an acute shortage of personnel, will receive a substantially higher increase. These increases give an indication of how far behind market rates, doctors pay scales have fallen over the past few years. In return for the better salary levels, doctors have agreed to clock in and out of their shifts. A further 1,000 positions have also been added by the government to reduce the shortage of manpower that has been plaguing Israeli hospitals. Overall, this agreement is set to change the face of Israeli medicine and medical treatment in the country over the next few years.

The Israeli medical health system is one of the best that I have come across. One does not find the phenomenon here like in the USA and other countries around the world, that people who are at an economic disadvantage are unable to receive medical treatment. In Israel, all citizens have the right to have access to basic medical treatment which is of a high standard. One does also not experience the issue which the UK's National Health System suffers from of lengthy waiting lists for treatments to be carried out. In Israel, even though it may require some patience, treatments are usually available within a reasonable period of time. Now that pay scales have been rectified, it will ensure that those delivering this service will be remunerated accordingly. It will also mean that high quality individuals will be attracted to the medical field, and will be incentivised to practice their art in Israel as opposed to seeking more lucrative opportunities abroad.

For me, the main lessons to be learned from the new deal are the ones arising from the process that it took until the time that it was agreed. One can learn many things from the behaviour of the doctors in this process, as well as the way in which government officials acted. One of the toughest lessons that new immigrants to Israel are forced to learn, frequently via the most difficult route, is that there is no such thing as automatic entitlement in this country. Even if you have a caste-iron agreement in place which says that you are entitled to a certain increase in salary or other entitlement, you will not receive this unless you are prepared to go in and demand what you are entitled to. Whereas in other countries, companies usually have a date upon which salaries are reviewed and pay increases are awarded (or not as the case may be), this type of behaviour is not typical for Israel. Companies will award pay increases to those who shout the loudest, and may completely overlook those who are not willing to make a big noise. The doctors' strike was one of necessity. It should be clear that, without the industrial action and public relations exercise that went with it, the doctors would not have achieved a small fraction of what they deservedly achieved.

The way that the action was taken, is of equal importance. Emergency services were never interrupted. Instead, the doctors professionally separated the cases into those whose treatment was essential, and those whose treatment could be delayed. Any treatment that was essential went forward without consideration of the industrial action. Doctors administering chemotherapy and psychiatric treatment did not interrupt their regular work day in the interests of taking best care of their patients. The strike was immediately lifted ten days ago in the area of the terror attacks in the south until such time as all casualties from these attacks had been taken proper care of. Although there is now a substantial backlog of non-emergency treatments that have been delayed, the doctors have somehow managed their medical responsibilities under their Hippocratic Oath, while also succeeding in placing the required pressure on those who only understand the language of industrial action.

The behaviour of the government officials in this sorry story have less sympathy and respect from me. To begin with, the demands of the doctors were completely ignored. Even when the industrial action was initiated, the treasury refused to give sufficient consideration to the effects of below-market pay rates to the country's medical professionals. It eventually took a hunger strike on the part of the chairman of the Israel Medical Association, and a complete walkout of all medical residents from their hospitals until the proper attention was given to this important issue. When the agreement was finally signed last week, the treasury officials did their best to keep the signing low-key and behind doors.

It is true that the government has an obligation to keep its spending under control, especially at the current time when inflation threatens to increase. With huge security obligations, Israel's government spending is always tough to keep under control. This should not, and cannot serve as an excuse for not allocating the correct public money to build the future of this young country. Education, medical services, infrastructure and many other services cannot be ignored due to the military and security requirements. It does mean, however, that public officials have extra responsibility to ensure that each Shekel of tax money goes as far as it possibly can. In this, unfortunately, our country fails miserably. The amount of waste, corruption and unnecessary spending of money that is evident is a huge disappointment to the citizens of Israel. Why should the defense minister feel justified to request a new Audi A8 at a cost to the taxpayer of 2 million Shekels, when his current A6 is more than adequate. The state comptroller's reports are regularly critical of unnecessary wastage of tax money. Such lack of consideration to where the money really needs to go, should not be tolerated.

I feel that citizens of the State of Israel owe a deep debt of gratitude to our medical professionals. For many years, they have provided a high quality service in line with the most recent developments in technology and treatment, while being paid far less than their real value. When the moment came to bring this situation to a head, they did so in the most respectful way possible, while still insisting upon the maintenance of their own rights and dignity. If some of our government officials and elected politicians behaved in this way, Israel would be in a much better overall state.

Sunday 21 August 2011

The Scourge of Terrorism in Southern Israel

During the course of last Thursday when a series of terror attacks were taking place in the south of Israel, the country was following the news on a minute-by-minute basis hungry for updates of the latest situation. This brought back reminders of a few years ago when buses, restaurants and coffee shops were being targeted by terrorists intent on killing innocent Israelis. Thursday's events served as a reminder that, despite a number of years having passed since the last Intifada, those intent on destroying Israel and her people will never rest.

Now that Thursday's sequence of events are better known, it is clear that this was a well coordinated onslaught on the State of Israel and her citizens. According to the press reports, a cell of about 20 operatives from the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) tunnelled their way from Gaza into the Sinai Peninsula. From there, they crossed the border fence from Egypt into Israel and set up a series of ambushes near to the border fence. In the first attack, light arms were used to fire on a bus travelling towards Eilat from Beer Sheva. A number of soldiers travelling on the bus were injured in this attack, and only the presence of mind of the bus driver saved further loss of life. Despite his bus coming under sustained fire, and bullets passing narrowly over his own head during the attack, he did not stop until he saw Israeli security vehicles that had been dispatched in response to the attack. A short time after this, another bus was fired upon. Although this bus was empty, the bus driver was shot and killed in the attack. When the security services gathered at the sites of the attacks, an ambush was launched on the soldiers and police who were gathered there. The skirmish that followed resulted in the death of an Israeli soldier.

The attack that resulted in the greatest loss of life on Thursday, was made on a civilian vehicle that was travelling towards Eilat. An anti-tank missile was fired at this car, and instantly killed the four middle-aged occupants who were innocently travelling from central Israel for a holiday in Eilat. Another car was also hit by a rocket-propelled grenade as part of the series of attacks, resulting in a further death. An attack on an Israeli security patrol along the Egyptian border later in the day saw a further security officer killed in the crossfire. In all during the course of Thursday, 8 Israelis were killed and many more injured. Some of the terrorists were also killed in the response to these incidents, but most of the cell escaped back towards Sinai. Egyptian soldiers found themselves in the middle of the crossfire between IDF soldiers and the terrorists. It is reported that 3 Egyptian soldiers were killed, seemingly by IDF fire.

Israel had received intelligence of an imminent attack in the area where the attacks took place. The nature of the attack was not clear, but the warnings were sufficiently serious for the Israeli military to decide to deploy a unit of crack Golani soldiers in the area. In addition to the Golani soldiers, the security services had also deployed a unit of Israel's highly specialised anti-terrorism police (known by its Hebrew acronym Yamam) in the area of the attacks. The special units were expecting an infiltration from across the border in order to try to kidnap another IDF soldier. They were not expecting the chain of attacks that actually took place. Their presence in the area and their quick responses to the locations of the attacks, however, almost certainly prevented greater casualties.

Responsibility for this series of attacks falls to Islamic Jihad and the PRC based in Gaza. While Hamas has been cautious not to get directly involved, the fact that these attacks come from Gaza while Hamas is ruling the strip means that Hamas has at least some indirect responsibility. There are those who claim that Hamas had the power to stop these events from taking place. So, although the attacks were not from Hamas, the rulers in Gaza are responsible for not stopping them. Israel's response to the attacks was swift and pin-pointed. The first strike eliminated the PRC operatives who were responsible for planning the attacks and giving the authorisation to proceed. Further Israeli air force strikes hit smuggling tunnels in Gaza as well as other terror locations.

The IDF strikes, in turn, precipitated further rocket attacks from Gaza. Up to the time of posting this blog on Sunday evening, more than 100 missiles have rained down on Southern Israel from Gaza since Thursday. The two"Iron Dome" batteries that have been deployed around major cities in the south have successfully shot down a number of missiles. Despite this fact, 1 person has been killed and many others injured in the barrage that has fallen in the south. Schools, homes and other buildings have been destroyed and damaged. The IDF has intensified its reaction to the bombing, which simply continues the tit-for-tat exchanges which endanger human lives every day. This could also result in an all-out war, something which has happened in the past. At the time of writing this, the Egyptians have offered to mediate a truce between Israel and all Palestinian factions involved. Although a ceasefire was understood to have come into force at 9pm Israeli time this evening, two missiles were fired after this time. One was intercepted by an Iron Dome missile, and another fell in open area. It seems as though no ceasefire is being adhered to.

The irony about these terror attacks is that, only hours earlier on Thursday morning, Israel was negotiating with Hamas for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. These negotiations, also brokered by the Egyptians, ended without result. It is hardly surprising that this was the result, when Hamas is allowing terror attacks to be launched from within its territory against Israel. Hamas seems to have no intention of coming to any agreement with Israel. Continuing to negotiate over the release of Gilad Shalit is simply speaking with "forked tongue" in its truest sense. Having evacuated Gaza and turned it over entirely to the rule of the Palestinians, what is it that Hamas really wants of Israel? Perhaps these actions represent Hamas acting true to its genuine beliefs that it will not rest until the Jews have no homeland in the world.

What is more frightening is that the world is looking towards Israel ahead of a possible UN vote on Palestinian statehood less than a month from now. Surely, the world can never expect Israel to co-exist alongside those who behave in this way. To make it quite clear, the excuses that Hamas and other Palestinian factions give for this behaviour are simply excuses. The violence will not miraculously stop if and when the blockage on Gaza is lifted, or when a Palestinian state is created. Rather than stop the violence, these events are more likely to escalate the violence, with the Palestinians having greater forces and weapons at their disposal.

At this critical juncture when Israel has shown willingness to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one capture IDF hero, or when debates are taking place regarding Palestinian statehood, the Palestinians have unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for Israel) shown their true colours once again. I was one of the people who wanted to give them a chance to allow them to prove that they are prepared to live in peace alongside a Jewish country. I have, however, given up all hope of this. It will not happen in my lifetime, despite the best efforts by many in the Israeli peace camp. Once, about 15 years ago, the majority of Israelis would have voted in favour of a peace treaty. Now, it seems to me that a small number would give peace a chance under the current circumstances.

Even as the Palestinian leadership tries to convince the world that its intentions of having a Palestinian state are honourable and trustworthy, the Palestinian street has shown the true intentions of these efforts. They cannot, and should not be trusted. There can be no Palestinian state and there can be no peace treaty unless something fundamental changes in the Palestinian camp. In the meantime, Israel has no choice but to fight fire with fire.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Is This The Israeli Spring?

Some newspapers, particularly those in the Arab world, have started to write about the current social protests in Israel as the "Israeli Spring". This brings the Israeli demonstrations into a direct comparison with the "Arab Spring", the series of uprisings that have been sweeping the Arab world. But how relevant is this comparison? Is it accurate to depict the Israeli protests as part of a "Middle Eastern Spring"?

For me, the Arab Spring and the Israeli protests are two separate and unrelated issues that happen to have occurred at the same time. The Arab uprisings have come in the place of a due democratic process for replacing rulers and governments in these countries. The Arab Spring has been all about regime change, and protestors have not been prepared to rest until the government has fallen and the leadership replaced. This is what we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen so far. The situations in Libya and Syria also reflect this objective, and the protestors have been prepared to continue their protests for months on end until they see Ghadafi and Assad relinquish power. The Arab Spring uprisings have also been met with a firm hand of authority by the relevant ruling powers. Thousands have been killed in the course of governments trying to quell popular uprisings against autocratic leaders.

Although the protests in Israel also reflect dissatisfaction on the part of everyday citizens, the situation could not be more different. Perhaps the most important fact concerning the Israeli protests is that they have not called for regime change. Many protestors have expressed great disappointment and dissatisfaction with the performance of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government. None of them have, however, sought his replacement. For that, we have another mechanism - a general election. The next general election will need to take place by February 2013 at the latest, and provides the opportunity for Israelis to replace Netanyahu if they are sufficiently dissatisfied with him. This means that the current protests have no need or desire to call for the government to be replaced.

The protests in Israel have been heartfelt and have attracted the support and participation of large numbers of Israelis. All of these people have the same objective, which is to bring to the government's attention the economic hardships that they are all suffering. These are mostly people with homes and with jobs, and who are just not managing to make their income stretch far enough to cover all their expenses in order to survive in a modest manner. They are calling for tax breaks and cheaper housing options to make their money go further to allow them to feed, clothe and educate their children without being forced into overdraft every month. The way that they are making their frustrations felt is by setting up tent cities in public areas in Israel's major cities.

Instead of clamping down on these protestors, the municipalities have cooperated to allow them to exercise their democratic right to protest. Municipalities have put up netting above the tents to provide shade from the summer heat. They have provided water tanks at the tent cities to ensure that protestors can maintain basic hygiene. Signs have been erected alongside the tent cities proclaiming that municipal workers support their cause and the protestors' efforts. Shopkeepers in the area have befriended the protestors and provided them with basic foodstuffs that they may require, often without charge. Lounge furniture has been delivered and set up next to the areas of the tent cities where protestors and their supporters can gather for social meetings and heated debates. Guitar music and singing can be heard in the vicinity of the protest tents, where people have come together to support each other and enjoy a little light entertainment. Police have been deployed around these areas only to protect the belongings of the protestors, and to ensure that social order is maintained in the tent cities. Many policemen and women have befriended the protestors, and have got to know them on a first name basis. The local newspapers are full of stories about romances that have blossomed in the protest tents on the streets of Israeli towns and cities. At the large demonstrations, some of which have attracted up to 250,000, some of Israel's biggest singers have been on hand to keep the crowds entertained, many offering their services without cost. When considering all of the above, how can one honestly link this to the protests and the government reactions that have been seen in Arab countries in recent months?

I have been horrified to see the violence which has taken hold of the streets of England over the past week or two. The sights of businesses and residences of innocent people being torched by gangs of thugs, while police watch helplessly, has been a tragic and terrifying image. I feel sure that many youths and young people in Israel have the same feeling of disenfranchisement as their British counterparts. I am convinced that there are many Israelis who would also welcome the opportunity to lay their hands on a new pair of trainers or new plasma TV set. These are the people who are voicing their frustrations in the tent cities across Israel. In Tel Aviv, it is not coincidental that the tent city has sprung up on Rothschild Boulevard. Besides the fact that the street carries the name of one the wealthiest families and also has a wide middle island which has been adapted to accommodate thousands of tents, it is also the address for the headquarters of many of Israel's largest banks. The protest alongside the wealthy bankers of Israel has been located deliberately for the upper echelons of society to see from their office windows. And despite feelings running high that many of these people are downtrodden and have been poorly treated by Israeli society, there is no sign of looting or any social unrest at all. Their point, however, has been clearly made and noted.

In the Arab countries, the rulers have abused their authority by denying citizens any rights to freedom of expression and due democratic process. They have clamped down on their citizens in the most horrific way by setting the army on innocent civilians, and killing people in their thousands. In England, youths on the streets have abused their democratic rights by looting shops, setting fire to properties and even killing innocent people. I can't help feeling that Israelis, who also have the same strong feelings, have managed to get things just right. People are protesting about the issues which are most hurtful to them, but doing it in a way in which each side respects the other's rights. It is not for nothing that we have been called the only democratic country in the Middle East. This is clearly visible on the streets of Israel at this time.

Long live democracy in the Holy Land !

Sunday 7 August 2011

Being Uplifted From a Most Unlikely Place

I am sure you all know the feeling when a seemingly insignificant event or comment has a marked impact on your spirits. This is exactly what happened to me last week. I had a particularly exhausting week through a combination of increased pressure at work and the effects of the summer heat. I went along to the supermarket late one evening with my wife and son to pick up a few items of groceries. Once my wife had found all that she needed (and more), we headed to the checkout counter.

In Israeli supermarkets, the checkout counter is usually a place to increase your tension levels. Queues are long, other shoppers are rude and inconsiderate and the checkout clerks usually slow and uncaring. On this occasion, our checkout clerk was an Ethiopian lady with a big welcoming smile. We recognised her from a few weeks ago when she also checked us out, and we immediately got chatting. She remarked on how tired I looked (I guess that she figured this out from the fact that I sat down on the chair of the next checkout counter that was not in operation, and let my wife and son get on with bagging our goods). She was interested in the fact that we spoke English amongst ourselves, and asked where we came from. I told her that we originate from South Africa, and she remarked that we are cousins by virtue of our common African heritage. I asked how long she has been in Israel, and she told me that she came on aliyah from Ethiopia 27 years ago in 1984. This means that she has lived in Israel for most of her life, and probably came as part of Operation Moses that airlifted some 8,000 Jews from the Gondar region of Ethiopia.

I asked about life in Ethiopia. She said that now, life in Ethiopia is not too bad. This is in contrast to the starvation that was being experienced at the time of her immigration in the mid 80's. Despite the improvements in the situation in Ethiopia, she said that life there is not good for the Jews. Tongue in cheek, I responded by saying that life in Israel is also not good for the Jews. My comment was a throw-away line which referred mainly to the massive demonstrations against economic hardships. I knew that she would almost certainly not have things easy. The immigrants from Ethiopia have been forced to endure a great deal of hardship during their time in Israel. Many of them were not recognised as Jews and were not extended the rights available to Jews under Israel's Law of Return when they arrived. A great number have been forced to convert to Judaism to be recognised as Jews by Israel's Ministry of the Interior. Their gentle character and system of respect has been taken advantage of in the aggressive rough-and-tumble that is prevalent in Israel. The fact that so many of the Ethiopian immigrants have been through the Israeli education system, completed their army service and integrated themselves fully into Israeli society is a huge achievement. I was also aware that this lady, as a checkout clerk, is probably earning the minimum wage of approximately 24 Shekels an hour. If people earning twice this amount are camped out in tent cities across Israel protesting economic hardships, how much more somebody like her. My expectation was that she would simply agree with my comment that things are not easy.

Instead, she looked at me, smiled and said, "but this is our country". She told me how good she feels that she can identify freely as a Jew in Israel, and eat kosher food without worrying about who may be watching her. Despite having lived in Israel for so many years, she clearly still values and appreciates the freedom that she has a Jew in the Jewish homeland. I left the supermarket still feeling tired, but really uplifted from my short conversation. In the space of a few sentences, the Ethiopian lady had really made me appreciate again what it is to be a Jew in Israel despite all the hardships. The truth is that I am usually aware of this fact, and how privileged I am to be able to live as a Jew in a Jewish country. One only has to go back one generation, to the time of my parents, to know how Jews were forced to live "under the radar" in order to survive. With anti-Semitism rife in many countries, this is still the case today in some parts of the world. The checkout clerk helped to remind me of this at a time that I was thinking more about how tired I felt, and about the economic hardships that people are feeling in Israel at the current time. She somehow managed to focus on the half full part of the glass, rather than the half empty.

Life is certainly not easy these days for many of Israel's citizens. Many people are working hard simply to stay on the bread line. Thousands of people are camped in tent cities across Israel protesting against economic hardships. The fact that fully 5% of the population were involved last nght in demonstrations against the economic situation in Israel, is evidence of the hardships being experienced by so many. Despite all of this, our Ethiopian checkout lady was able to keep smiling, and radiate her positive energy in a way that really lifted my spirits. On my next visit to the supermarket, I will definitely lookiout for my Ethiopian friend.