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Premier Palestinian medical school graduates struggle to work in Jerusalem

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JERUSALEM — Basel Nassar, a young Palestinian doctor from this city, is not allowed to practice medicine here. So he flew to Houston last week to take the last phase of a licensing exam that will qualify him to work in the United States.

“I am forced to do this,” Nassar, 33, said on the eve of his departure. “Israel is so close, but it is making trouble for us for some trivial reason. I can’t work 15 minutes from my house, where they accepted me in a specialty I was dreaming to get. I simply can’t understand it.”

Nassar’s predicament, shared by dozens of Palestinian doctors from East Jerusalem, is the result of a bureaucratic impasse linked to the long-standing struggle over this contested city.

The doctors in question received their medical degrees from Al-Quds University, a prominent Palestinian institution of higher learning. Although it is the leading Arab university in the Jerusalem metropolitan area, graduates of its medical school are not allowed to take the Israeli licensing exam needed to work in the city.

As a result, a heavily burdened health-care system in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, where specialists are sorely lacking, is deprived of an infusion of new physicians to help serve a population of about 300,000.

On the face of it, the problem, which is set to be considered this month by Israel’s Supreme Court, stems from a technical dispute.

The scattered campuses of Al-Quds University lie both within and outside Jerusalem’s city limits. Most departments, including the medical school, are concentrated at the main campus in Abu Dis, a Jerusalem suburb in the West Bank, beyond the city line. Others are in East Jerusalem.

The banned doctors assert that they have the right to take the Israeli licensing exam like any other resident of Jerusalem with a foreign medical degree, noting that they studied in a West Bank area under the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli Health Ministry says that because Al-Quds University also operates in East Jerusalem, which has been annexed by Israel, it cannot be recognized as a foreign institution and its medical school graduates cannot take the licensing exam like other foreign-trained doctors.

Moreover, university departments operating in East Jerusalem do not have the approval of the Israeli Council for Higher Education, which must sanction colleges and universities in Israel. A request by Al-Quds for Israeli recognition of those departments as a separate school is pending.

Shlomo Lecker, an Israeli lawyer representing about 50 doctors in an appeal to the Supreme Court against the ban, said he suspects Israel’s stand is part of a political attempt to push the foremost Palestinian academic institution in Jerusalem out of the city.

“This is a struggle against Al-Quds University,” Lecker said in an interview. “The Health Ministry has mobilized to take these doctors hostage to exert political pressure in a matter that is not under its authority.”

The ministry, Lecker says, is being derelict in its duty to provide proper health services, showing “utter disregard for the medical needs of residents of East Jerusalem.”

The president of Al-Quds University, Sari Nusseibeh, is a well-known Palestinian moderate who has promoted joint projects with academic institutions in Israel, defying calls in his own community for an academic boycott.

Zakaria al-Qaq, the university’s vice president for external affairs, recalled working for years on the problem of Israeli accreditation of the school’s graduates. He said he has concluded that the Israeli policy is motivated by “pure political reasons.”

“I personally believe that they don’t want to allow any Palestinian symbol, including a major educational institution that could be seen as a rival to the Hebrew University, in Jerusalem,” he said.

The director general of the Israeli Health Ministry, Ronni Gamzu, acknowledged in a letter to a Jerusalem city councilman last year that “broad political questions, not necessarily on behalf of the Health Ministry,” were a factor in the policy toward graduates of the Al-Quds medical school.

A spokeswoman for the ministry said that the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as health minister, was involved.

An official in Netanyahu’s office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, denied any political effort to dislodge Al-Quds University from Jerusalem but said its operations in the city needed official authorization for the status of its graduates to be resolved.

“From our perspective, institutions in Jerusalem are Israeli institutions, and they have to be registered here,” he said.

Calls for a reversal of the ban on the Al-Quds-trained doctors have also come from the Israeli medical community. The chairman of the Israeli Medical Association, Leonid Eidelman, wrote to Gamzu this year, arguing that there could be “no substitute” for the quality of care that physicians familiar with the local language and culture could provide Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Nassar, the doctor traveling to the United States, said he had hoped to become a resident in cardiology at an Israeli hospital in downtown Jerusalem, where he said the department head had been impressed with his résumé. Instead, Nassar has been working for low pay as a supervisory physician in a rehabilitation center in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Arabic-speaking doctors, Nassar said, are needed not only in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem, but also in the city’s Israeli hospitals, where many Arab patients are treated.

“In the emergency room, one question can save a life,” Nassar said. “It’s important to have physicians who understand the patients. And they would help Jewish patients as well.”

If Israel changed its policy, Nassar said, he would drop his travel plans and work in Jerusalem “the second I’m allowed.”

“I’m still dreaming to make a change here,” he said, as he headed home to pack his bags.

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