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Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Friday, 12 September 2008 12:15 UK

Splits behind Gaza medics strike

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Gaza Strip

The factional fighting in the Palestinian Territories may have died down, but a new political battleground has emerged - the hospitals of the Gaza Strip.

Gaza doctor Ahmed Shatat
Doctors not observing the strike are having to work double shifts

At the neonatal intensive care unit at the Nasser Childrens' Hospital in Gaza City, Dr Ahmed Shatat is struggling to save lives. He rushes from incubator to incubator to treat the tiny newborn babies.

The hospital has been facing severe problems for months. An Israeli blockade means there are difficulties in getting medicines and equipment into Gaza.

But two weeks ago, things got much worse for Dr Shatat, when more than half of his colleagues decided to go on strike.

"It's very hard to work during this strike," he says. "Of course, it affects the quality of our service, mortality rates have increased."

To use these babies for political reasons is very, very bad
Dr Ahmed Shatat

"Here, on the first day of the strike, a newborn baby died. He was very ill, but there were so few medical workers, that the constant supervision he needed could not be given."

At the end of the ward, 26-year-old Um Givara cradles her baby, waiting for the use of a ventilator.

"We're all worried about this strike because our sick children need doctors and nurses to look after them," she says. "I can tell, things are not like before."

'Interference'

It is the same picture across wards in hospitals up and down Gaza. Hundreds of doctors are on strike. The reason, they say, is to protest against Hamas' abuse of power, and interference in their profession.

Fatah is 100% involved in this strike. Ramallah is telling our employees, that if they don't participate in the strike, their salary will be cut
Dr Bassim Naim
Hamas health official

Sitting in his home in an apartment block in Gaza City, in the middle of the day, we find Dr Muhammed. He did not want to give his full name for fear of arrest

"We are committed to this strike," he says. "Since Hamas took control, they have sacked many doctors and replaced decision-makers in hospitals with people who support Hamas. I am ready to go back tomorrow if they reinstate people."

But for a moment, Dr Muhammed looks troubled. "It's not easy for me to strike, there are psychological pressures on me as a doctor, I really don't know what to do."

'Threats'

There is politics at play here.

After fierce fighting last year, Islamist Hamas violently took charge of Gaza.

Since then, its rival, the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has assumed control of the West Bank leaving two territories, two parties, two Palestinian administrations.

It is the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA), based in Ramallah, that receives all of the international donor money to pay doctors' salaries. Hamas says that is being used to make things difficult in Gaza and cause problems for Hamas.

It is like we are giving Hamas a furnished apartment in Gaza and paying for it, while Hamas humiliates our people
Osama Najjar
Pro-Fatah Medical Workers Union

"Fatah is 100% involved in this strike," says Dr Bassim Naim, the Hamas politician responsible for health in Gaza.

"Ramallah is telling our employees that if they don't participate in the strike their salary will be cut. They have already done it to some doctors."

The PA says it supports the strike, but denies it is threatening to cut doctors' salaries if they do not commit to it.

But Dr Shatat, back at the neonatal unit at Nasser Hospital, told us he has already lost his salary because he did not take part in a previous Fatah-backed strike.

"When they told me from Ramallah that I have to go home and leave the patients alone, or they will stop my money, I couldn't understand it, so I stayed," he says.

Tired from having to work double shifts in the hospital now so many of his colleagues are striking, he looks distressed as he surveys his ward full of sick newborns.

"To use these babies for political reasons is very, very bad."

New suffering

The strike is being driven by the pro-Fatah Medical Workers Union.

Its director, Osama Najjar, in Ramallah, says scores of striking doctors in Gaza have been called in for interrogations, and had their private clinics closed down as punishment.

But he is adamant the strike will continue until Hamas backs down.

In fact, he is calling for much more pressure to be applied to Hamas in Gaza. Even asking that Mr Abbas hold on to the aid money he receives to pay for Gaza's electricity.

"It is like we are giving Hamas a furnished apartment in Gaza and paying for it, while Hamas humiliates our people. We should think hard about paying these bills for them, let Hamas be responsible."

These days, people may not be getting killed in the cross-fire of Fatah-Hamas gunfights on the streets of Gaza, as they used to, but the political wrangles are still hurting them.

For the population of the Gaza Strip, more than half of whom are under the age of 16, there is now a new dimension to their suffering.



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