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3 Israeli Hospitals Close As Doctors’ Hunger Strike Spreads; Fiery Knesset Debate

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Israel faced a medical catastrophe today as three major hospitals shutdown because of the spreading hunger strike by doctors, others drastically curtailed services and the Knesset was embroiled in an uproarous debate over who was to blame for the crisis.

With thousands of doctors — more than half the country’s medical force — fasting to back up their salary demands and scores collapsing from weakness, Hadassah Hospital closed its Mt. Scopus medical center, Safed Hospital shutdown completely and Rambam Hospital in Haifa closed its doors to all patients except soldiers wounded in Lebanon.

At Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where the hunger strike began last week in an attempt to force a settlement of the four month-old strike by government employed physicians, pregnant women about to give birth were turned away. The director of Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikva, one of the country’s largest, resigned today in protest against the government’s delays in dealing with the issues of doctors’ salaries and working conditions.

CRITICAL FOR INFANTS

The situation was described as critical for weak or prematurely born infants who were left in the care of nurses at most hospitals in the absence of pediatricians. In many hospitals, fasting doctors were occupying beds, too weak to function. Otherswere being fed intravenously to maintain minimum strength. The doctors appeared determined however to resort to desperate measures to press their demands. They rejected the latest government offer as “the same old formula in new dress.”

Medical students joined the hunger strike today and they, along with hundreds of doctors maintained a silent vigil outside the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile the Knesset chamber rocked with the din of hurled insults and invectives between coalition and opposition members. The opposition supported a proposal for binding arbitration to end the strike. The government appeared willing for a time. It promised to resort to arbitration if negotiations fail to produce a settlement in the next two days, but only on condition that the Labor Alignment abstain in a vote on a no-confidence motion submitted by the Hadash Communist Party.

ARIDOR OPPOSES COMPROMISE

But the government withdrew its offer after it was vetoed by Finance Minister Yoram Aridor who is opposed to any sort of salary compromise that arbitration might produce. Aridor, who insists that the 22 percent national wage increase ceiling must be maintained at all costs, has threatened to resign if outside arbitrators are brought into the conflict.

Labor voted for the no-confidence motion which was easily defeated by a 61-50 vote. Health Minister Eliezer Shostak responded with a scathing attack on the Laborites. “Your hands have spilled this blood,” he shouted, “and now those same hands are raised to support a Communist motion.” Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres promptly demanded that Shostak resign. He noted that the government has been negotiating with the doctors for 3 1/2 months and Premier Menachem Begin needed all that time just to force the Health Minister and Finance Minister to sit down together. Shostak and Aridor have not been on speaking terms for weeks because of their different approaches to a strike settlement. They shouted insults at each other at last Sunday’s Cabinet meeting.

Labor MK Yossi Sarid demanded that Shostak retract his charge that Labor “spilled blood.” Knesset Speaker Menachem Savidor ruled that there was nothing to retract, whereupon Sarid turned to Shostak, shouting, “If there is nothing to take back then I tell the Minister, you are one big zero, one big zero.”

BEGIN SUMMONS MINISTER

Shostak rose, livid with anger, to shout back, “I can only reply to you Yossi Sarid that you are sheketz meshukatz (roughly translated, a filthy creature). You are despised by all people in the State of Israel.”

At that point the Knesset appeared to go out of control with coalition and opposition members rising from their seats, shaking fists and shouting epithets. Savidor called a 10 minute recess to cool tempers. But the shouting resumed when the session reconvened. Throughout it all, Begin sat in silence at the Cabinet table.

Later he announced that he had summoned Aridor and Shostak to resume talks with representatives of the Medical Association. Begin himself had met with a group of doctors earlier at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem.

The doctors told him the hunger strike would end if he promised binding arbitration. But Aridor continued to refuse. He was supported by Interior Minister Yosef Burg.

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