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JERUSALEM, July 20 (Reuters) - Hundreds of public sector doctors in Israel walked off their hospital jobs on




Wednesday in a wildcat strike to demand better pay and conditions.

The rare action by physicians was the latest in a series of protests this month in the Jewish state where social issues have taken centre stage amid a lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence.

In the city of Haifa, resident physicians at the main Rambam Hospital blocked a main road, while in Tel Aviv, hundreds left key departments barely staffed to attend protests against what they say are worsening conditions in public hospitals.

The doctors launched labour sanctions several months ago, limiting clinic hours in demand of better salaries and hours, but escalated their actions on Wednesday, saying they would weigh a rare general strike unless their demands were met.

This week doctors rejected Finance Ministry proposals for a pay rise of up to 40 percent, saying these failed to address their demands to hire more medical staff at overcrowded hospitals.

"It's about time we spoke up, people's lives are at risk," Adi Aran, a pediatrician doing a residency in a unit for premature infants, said as she joined 200 colleagues in a walkout from Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv.

Doctors from nine hospitals in the densely populated Tel Aviv and Haifa areas joined the walkout, some of them blocking roads en route to rallies where they discussed threats for an extended, general strike.

Aran said that contrary to a labour agreement signed a decade ago, resident physicians, or doctors learning a specialty, worked up to nine overnight shifts a month in addition to regular duties. The agreement calls for just six.

"We see no agreement on the horizon and it's time for our voices to be heard," she said.

Some saw the wildcat strike as fueled by other protests that have been sweeping Israel, including university students camped out on the streets of Tel Aviv to back demands for cheaper housing and consumer groups lobbying for food price cuts.

Israeli law provides for global health care, largely funded by compulsory fees levied on most citizens.

But the public system has suffered budgetary strains in recent years, leading to demands for greater state funding which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has resisted, fearing an inflationary spiral and more labour unrest. (Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan, editing by Alistair Lyon) (allyn.fisher.thomsonreuters.com; +972-2-6322202; Reuters Messaging:allyn.fisher.thomsonreuters.com@thomsonreuters.net))



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