Labor court orders doctors back to work after day-long strike to protest overhaul

IMA says it disagrees with decision but will honor it after Health Minister Arbel requests injunction to end wildcat action; more strikes threatened

Interior and Health Minister Moshe Arbel arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 7, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Interior and Health Minister Moshe Arbel arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on May 7, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A labor court ordered the healthcare industry back to work Tuesday, ending a single-day strike by doctors and other medical staff staged in protest of the passage a day earlier of the government’s first judicial overhaul law.

The ruling only came in the late afternoon, hours after doctors and others nationwide walked off the job, leaving most medical facilities with skeleton staffing, a palpable warning to the government amid public outrage over the Knesset’s cancellation of a law voiding “unreasonable” government appointments.

The court order came too late to make a difference for outpatient health clinics, which would have ended their workday anyway by the time it was issued.

Prof. Zion Hagay, head of the Israel Medical Association, said doctors would return to work “after a strike that lasted for most of the workday,” while threatening future action.

“We have a long struggle ahead of us, and our declaration this week of a labor dispute will give us more tools later on, including the option of declaring a general strike — which is different from a protest strike on which the court ruled,” he argued.

The IMA announced the general strike in the healthcare system on Monday night, as Israelis poured into the streets to protest the Knesset’s passage of the “reasonableness” law.

The strike saw the healthcare system operate on a limited Sabbath and holiday schedule. However, emergency rooms of general and psychiatric hospitals were excluded and operated as usual, as did community clinics in the Jerusalem area, “due to the large number of people in the area and the complex situation there.”

On Tuesday morning, Health Minister Moshe Arbel applied for an injunction to prevent “this last-minute wildcat strike that will unjustly hurt thousands of patients.”

Arbel later appealed to the IMA to agree to end the strike at 1 p.m., but they refused.

Two hours later, the Bat Yam Labor Court accepted Arbel’s request for an injunction, writing: “We believe a protest strike of two hours is sufficient to execute the right to protest, but not beyond that.”

“In practice, the strike has been going on for over seven hours,” it added. “We are ordering an immediate return to work for all healthcare services that were on strike today and reduce as much as possible the harm to patients.”

Doctors demonstrate against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Arbel responded by welcoming the “appropriate” ruling, saying in a statement: “It was again proven that the judges are considering the human rights of all citizens, those who support the [judicial] reform and those who oppose it. We must all act together to benefit the health of all citizens, without differentiating on the basis of religion, ethnicity, gender, nationality or political opinion.”

Hagay announced at a Jerusalem rally on Sunday, attended by several thousand physicians and healthcare workers, that the IMA had already declared a labor dispute that would position it to call a strike should the law pass. He also said that the professional organization would appeal to the Supreme Court.

Israel Medical Association chair Zion Hagay. (Screenshot from YouTube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

On Monday, Hagay castigated the coalition’s law, which removed courts’ ability to review politicians’ decisions based on their “reasonableness,” saying: “Today is a difficult day for the State of Israel and the Israeli nation.”

“The IMA has repeatedly warned that the consequences of the extreme version of the law canceling the ‘reasonableness’ test will have severe repercussions on the healthcare system, the patients and the doctors. Our hopes for a more moderate version were dashed,” Hagay said.

Announcing the strike, the IMA said in a statement: “We are doing everything possible so that the patients will not be negatively impacted by the steps we have been forced to take. We will operate on a Sabbath and holiday schedule, but physician committees and heads of departments will ensure sufficient staffing with doctors on rotation and call.”

During the strike, the IMA statement said Monday, patients arriving at any emergency department around the country would be seen by a doctor who would evaluate whether further treatment was needed — either in that hospital or elsewhere.

All other physicians and trainees would not show up to work.

Due to the strike’s short notice, patients with scheduled appointments for hospital procedures and surgeries would be considered on a case-by-case basis. Outpatient clinics were closed.

The following medical services would not be affected by the strike, the IMA said: Dialysis, IVF treatments, ultrasound scans for pregnant women, urgent care, maternity wards, neonatal departments, oncological treatments, surgeries, and some psychiatric services.

All community health fund clinics, except those in Jerusalem, were closed.

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