In front of Gaza City's gold-domed Legislative Council, a group of men sit glumly on plastic chairs, eating falafel sandwiches and sipping locally made colas.

They are surrounded by cloth banners and posters of solidarity.

The men are doctors, part of a group of more than 400 who have been coming here every day for more than two weeks to complain about their unemployment to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

Almost all of them served on the front lines - as volunteers - throughout the four years of al-Aqsa Intifada, witnessing first hand the havoc wreaked by the Israeli military machine on the Palestinian people.

Many were shot, suffering permanent injuries. More than a dozen were killed.

But after the recent Sharm al-Shaeikh summit officially ended the intifada, they were given the boot by the Ministry of Health. Now they say they were taken advantage of.

Shot and killed

"We carried the intifada on our backs. Many of us were shot and others even killed, and now we are being swept aside," said Ahmed al-Saiualy, media spokesman for the physicians.

He recalls a colleague, Raed Safadi, who was delivering oxygen tanks and first aid with his brother to a group of injured Palestinians during a deadly Israeli incursion into the Zaitun area of Gaza City last year. 

"We carried the Intifada on our backs. Many of us were shot and others even killed, and now we are being swept aside"

Ahmed al-Saiualy,
Palestinian physician

Israeli forces mistook the tanks for bombs, he says, and Safadi was shot in the stomach, suffering injuries to his liver. His brother, Dr Munzer Safadi, was not so lucky, dying from his bullet wounds. Both were unpaid volunteers.

"Disembowelled bodies, children with missing limbs and heads, we've seen it all," says al-Saiualy.

According to the doctor, the minister of health treated the volunteers as full-time hires, even though they were unpaid.

Al-Saiualy and his colleagues assumed that eventually, after the pressing humanitarian need for doctors had ceased, they would be hired with pay. But this has not happened.

"They called on us to be volunteers, with the same expectations as full-time hires. And we agreed. For more than four years we worked without being paid a penny. Now they say they don't need us any more."

Strained sector

A group of the doctors went to the ministry to discuss their problem and possible solutions. But they were turned away every time, al-Saiualy said.

"The ministry refused to meet with us. No one was interested in our simple demand: to be reinstated with paying jobs. So we decided to protest."

Palestinian doctors often have to
put themselves in harm's way

What is more frustrating, al-Saiualy says, is that there is a shortage of doctors in the Palestinian health sector, with the Gaza healthcare system straining to serve about 1.4 million people.

According to a recent report by the Israeli group Physicians for Human Rights, there is less than one doctor for every 1000 Palestinians in Gaza and one bed per 715 people in Gaza hospitals - a rate almost a quarter that of the lowest acceptable standard in the Israeli healthcare system.

While the Palestinian population is growing, the number of physicians meeting their medical needs is gradually declining, having fallen by 13% in the past six years. The number of nurses has fallen by 36%.

Moreover, two major hospitals remain closed because of a lack of medical staff.

Budget woes

The ministry, led by Dr Thohni al-Wuheidi, points the finger at the budget deficit and the obligation to follow through on the previous administration’s decisions.

But of more than 1200 new hires last year, none were doctors, al-Saiualy says. If the ministry has money for them, he says, it surely has money for doctors.

"We have no money left in our budget. In the beginning of April ...  we requested money for 1000 new jobs, but we heard they (the Ministry of Health) will only give us 250"

Dr Salah Mkhaldy,
Palestinian Ministry of Health office

"These [1200] people were on unemployment roll," counters Dr Salah Mkhaldy, of the office of the minister of health. "They were getting to be a real financial burden on the ministry, and we had to find a solution for them.

"So we decided to create specialised administrative and custodial jobs for each of them. The minister had no choice in this because it was an agreement from the previous administration that he had to follow through with."

He added: "Now we have no money left in our budget. In the beginning of April, we presented our new budget to the Palestinian cabinet.

"We requested money for 1000 new jobs, but we heard they will only give us 250, a number that we'll definitely object to, because only a small portion of these, maybe 50, will be allocated to doctors."

Mkhaldy insists, however, that the issue of the unemployed doctors is a priority for al-Wuheidi.

New doctors

"It is a priority for us to see these doctors employed because as it stands, we have the medical facilities, the latest equipment, but no money, so we can't hire and can't run the hospitals. It's really a waste.

"That said, we hired about 600 new doctors last year, not one or two. And if we want to count them, they are the ones who carried us through the intifada."

There is a shortage of doctors
and nurses

But al-Saiualy says they are just as qualified as the next doctors, having achieved the same marks on their qualifying exams, and accuses the ministry of using patronage and personal connections to hire.

The Ministry of Health denies any foul play, insisting that doctors are hired according to protocol.

"There is extreme transparency involved in the hiring process," said Mkhaldy.

"Every doctor we have working for us has been hired after being given an exam, then being approved by a multi-member committee overseen by three ministers and the health union. 

"Whoever's talking about corruption is talking because he has a personal grudge."

Planning

However, critics blame the ministry's lack of strategic planning for the crisis and say that with proper investment and training, the problem could be resolved. 

"[The Ministry of Health] always ends up blaming 'the situation'. OK, we understand that the situation is difficult, but we should have gotten to a point where we can balance our health sector needs with the political situation"

Dr Mona El-Farra,
Palestinian Red Crescent Society

"Right now we have sophisticated medical equipment, but there are hundreds of unemployed doctors and nurses because of a lack of planning," says Dr Mona El-Farra, head of the health committee for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

She said the problem isn't only a lack of investment in health services.

"[The Ministry of Health] always ends up blaming 'the situation'. OK, we understand that the situation is difficult, but we should have gotten to a point where we can balance our health sector needs with the political situation."

In the meantime, the doctors who have joined the ranks of Gaza's 500,000 unemployed will continue to strike until a solution is found.

"We are married and have kids and no one is thinking about us. We are doctors but don't even have health insurance ourselves," Abdel Fateh Abu Shamala, one of the doctors on strike, said.

"It's true the problem of unemployment is pervasive in our society. But as physicians we are prisoners of our profession. We don't even take unemployment benefits. All we ask for is the basic standard of living."