Israeli court says Palestinian doctors can work, as foreigners

The case of Palestinian doctors from East Jerusalem, who the Israeli Health Ministry and Council for Higher Education have prevented from working, presents Israel with a question: Are Palestinian institutions foreign or domestic?

The Jerusalem District Court this week ordered the Israeli Health Ministry to stop playing politics with the professional futures of 55 Palestinian doctors and to allow them to practice medicine in Israel.

Why were the medical school graduates of Al-Quds University denied the opportunity to work in Israeli hospitals in the first place? The Health Ministry refused to allow them to take medical certification exams because Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE) has yet to distinguish Al-Quds School of Medicine as either an accredited Israeli or foreign university, Haaretz reported.

But surely, if Israel does not consider Al-Quds University an Israeli institution of higher learning then it must be a foreign university? Not so in Jerusalem.

When a nation’s borders don’t quite end where most of the world has agreed they do (the pre-1967 borders), as is the case in Israel, determining what institutions are foreign and domestic becomes complicated. The Health Ministry’s justification for denying Al-Quds medical school alumni the opportunity to work in Israeli hospitals is largely a bureaucratic excuse based on a situation that Israel created when it annexed East Jerusalem.

Here’s the ministry’s twisted logic: one of Al-Quds University’s campuses is located within the Jerusalem municipal boundaries but others, where the majority of students attend, are located in the West Bank, including the Al-Quds School of Medicine, which is in Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem. The CHE has said it cannot recognize the university as an Israeli institution because it has campuses in the West Bank. However, the CHE also says it cannot designate Al-Quds as a foreign university because one of its campuses is located in East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as sovereign territory.

It’s a case of Israel wanting to have it both ways, unwilling to grant the university, or its individual schools, either domestic or foreign status, which leaves Al-Quds and its students stuck in post-graduate limbo. If Israel did not hold authority over East Jerusalem, the school could easily be designated a foreign university and Palestinian students could take their licensing exams as international students. But it’s never so easy when borders and territory are disputed.

Al-Quds University chose a creative solution, deciding to split its Jerusalem and West Bank campuses into separate universities so that the CHE and Health Ministry would have no justification to not recognize the Al-Quds college in Jerusalem as an Israeli institution, and the Al-Quds college in Abu Dis as a foreign institution. Still, after years of delay by the CHE, the doctors had to turn to the Israeli legal system to compel the Health Ministry to allow Palestinian doctors to take their exams, and practice the profession they spent years studying toward.

The Israeli attorney representing the doctors, Shlomo Lecker, also represented 15 Palestinian doctors in 2009. He won that case, which resulted in the medical school graduates taking the certification exams, which they passed.

A Palestinian doctor at a clinic in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. (Photo by
A Palestinian doctor at a clinic in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. (Photo by

In June 2013, then preparing to meet with Health Ministry officials, and weighing whether he would file a court petition on behalf of the Palestinian doctors, Lecker said in an interview that the doctors he represented in the 2009 case all found jobs at Israeli medical institutions. According to Haaretz, “when the Health Ministry allowed Al-Quds graduates to take the licensing exams, they consistently scored higher than the graduates of any other foreign medical school.”

But the previous court ruling did not help the current class of Palestinian doctors from East Jerusalem; hence Lecker was representing another group of Al-Quds graduates in essentially the same case.

The effect of preventing these doctors from working has undoubtedly left some East Jerusalem patients with diminished care as a result of understaffing and fewer Arabic-speaking medical professionals in East Jerusalem hospitals. How many young Palestinian students who may have considered medical school decided not to pursue this career path upon learning they may not be able to work in the city they were born in? Or for others, not being able to work in Israel, the country in which they were born and hold citizenship?

The Jerusalem court’s ruling is a positive step that will allow doctors to work and patients to receive care from medical professionals who speak their language. But this will likely not be the last time Palestinians will find it necessary to go to court in order to compel Israeli officials to act in accordance with previous rulings. Nor the last instance in which Israel’s refusal to serve all the residents of the city, which it claims is unified, will leave Palestinians wanting of care.

If Israel insists on remaining the governing authority in all of Jerusalem and the West Bank, just as all doctors pledge, the government must promise to do no harm. Israel must decide: are Palestinian institutions and territories foreign or domestic?

Resource: The failing East Jerusalem education system
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