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ABU DIS, West Bank – Since graduating from a local medical school nine years ago, Basel Nassar has been barred from serving his community in east Jerusalem, despite a shortage of doctors there.
Like dozens of other Palestinian doctors, Nassar has been caught in the political battle between Israel and the Palestinians over east Jerusalem. Israel captured and annexed the traditionally Arab sector in 1967, a step not recognized by most of the world, while the Palestinians seek it as a capital.
Palestinians long have held that Israel's attempt to impose its sovereignty over east Jerusalem — the emotional core of the Mideast conflict and home to major religious shrines — has violated basic rights and disrupted the lives of many of the city's Arab residents. Yet Israel's policy of banning dozens of Jerusalem residents from working in the city as doctors increasingly is being criticized by Israelis, including leading physicians who say politics must not trump the right to health care.
Earlier this month, an Israeli court overturned the Health Ministry's ban after Nassar and others sued, ostensibly clearing the way for him and 54 other doctors — who are graduates of the Palestinians' Al-Quds University — to apply for Israeli medical licenses. But it's not clear if the government has dropped the legal battle.
Critics say the issue is rooted in politics, not medical standards. Many of the doctors have passed medical examination tests elsewhere, including the U.S. and western Europe. But since all graduated from Al-Quds, a university with a foothold in east Jerusalem, Israeli recognition of their degrees could be seen as acknowledgment of Palestinian claims to the eastern sector of the city.
The Health Ministry applied a similar ruling several years ago to a small group of graduates on a one-time basis. It hasn't ruled out appealing the latest court decision.
Nassar, 34, had planned to emigrate to the U.S. because he could no longer support his family on a monthly salary of $1,300 at a West Bank clinic. He could earn about triple at Israeli hospitals. Following the court decision, he says he will stay, seeking training as a cardiologist in Israel and then work in east Jerusalem, where heart specialists are scarce.
"Eventually it's a simple equation," he said. "People in need. Good physicians and qualified physicians. These shall serve these."
Nassar and the other doctors who took the Israeli government to court graduated from Al Quds, named after the Arabic word for Jerusalem — "the holy one."
The university's main campus is located in Abu Dis, a West Bank suburb that straddles Jerusalem's municipal boundary, but the university also has several satellite campuses, including three in east Jerusalem. The medical school — the first established in the Palestinian territories in 1994 — is in Abu Dis.
While pledging its commitment to academic freedom, Al Quds also views itself as a defender of Palestinian rights in Jerusalem. In its brochure, it describes itself as "an embodiment of Palestinian perseverance in Jerusalem."
Because of the east Jerusalem branches, Israeli authorities have refused to recognize Al Quds as a foreign university, a status conferred on other West Bank institutions of higher learning. The Council of Higher Education in Israel, meanwhile, hasn't ruled on the university's repeated requests to put the east Jerusalem campuses of Al Quds under Israeli oversight, university officials said.
As a result, the Israel Health Ministry prevented the Al Quds medical school graduates from taking the Israeli licensing exams that are open to graduates of foreign universities.
In 2009, after legal action, the ministry permitted 15 graduates to take the Israeli exam, but refused to turn this into policy. In 2011, Nassar and other graduates went to court.
Israeli attorney Shlomo Lecker, who represented the young doctors, said Israel was holding his clients "hostage" to pressure Al Quds to close its academic institutions in east Jerusalem.
In early April, Jerusalem's District Court ruled in favor of the Palestinian doctors, all residents of the city, and said the ministry must let them take the Israeli exams.
Asked if this would now become policy, the ministry said in a written response that "the ruling does not only apply to the petitioners," but that "we cannot commit to every future case." It said it would soon "enable those among the Al Quds graduates who are eligible" to take the exams, but "on condition that no appeal will be filed by the state concerning this ruling."
Government spokesman Mark Regev declined further comment.
Dr. Hani Abdeen, the dean of the medical school, said Israel's refusal to accredit his graduates, particularly the Jerusalem residents, has exacerbated a brain drain. About 75 medical students graduate from Al Quds each year, and of those about 30 to 40 percent move to the U.S., Europe and Arab countries seeking higher pay and advancement opportunities, he said. Some would likely stay if allowed to enter the Israeli system, he said.
Dr. Ruth Stalnikovicz, who heads the emergency department at the Hadassah University Hospital on Jerusalem's Mount Scopus, said she would welcome more Arabic-speaking doctors in the city.
"Politics should not be involved," she said.