The Nurses' Association and the Finance Ministry reached an agreement late Wednesday night following a 17-day strike.

The strike came to an end and the public health nurses returned to work after it was decided they would receive a 13 percent salary hike. The agreement followed the failure of talks two days ago over a 12 percent wage increase.

The Treasury will pay the nurses' through a series of payments over 4.5 years, and will be gradual with 3.1 percent per year over the contract period.

National Nurses Union chairwoman Ilana Cohen said of the deal: “I am satisfied by the agreement and my nurses are also happy with it," Israel Radio reported.

The parties reached an agreement after several hours of talks mediated by the head of the National Labor Court, Judge Nili Arad.

According to Israel Radio, after a negotiations marathon the two sides announced to Arad that an “historic agreement” had been reached.

Attorney Kobi Amsalem, responsible for wages and wage agreements in the Finance Ministry welcomed the agreement with the Nurses' Union, stating that the monetary increase will "encourage entry into nursing... and bring a significant period of peace and stability in the health care system - for the greater benefit of the patients."

He thanked the Minister of Finance, Attorney General, President of the National Labor Court and the Prosecutor's Office, for accompanying the negotiations and helping to bring the dispute to an end.

Deputy Budgets Director Moshe Bar-Siman-Tov said the agreement "reflects an appropriate balance between the need to provide incentives to enter into the profession, and between the budget challenges to be expected in the near future."

The National Labor Court had not issued restraining orders, as the Treasury cancelled its original request for them after the court sided with the nurses, who argued that the Treasury was "not negotiating seriously."

The Health Ministry left the whole labor dispute to the Treasury to negotiate and make statements to the public.

The strike ends just in time, as health experts worried that if it continued for any longer, not only will tens of thousands of operations and other medical procedures be postponed, but outbreaks of diseases could occur.

Since the sanctions began by 28,000 nurses in hospitals and community health facilities, vaccinations of infants, schoolchildren and adults have not been carried out. The Israel Pediatrics Society warned that thousands of babies and toddler have not received shots against whooping cough, chicken pox, measles, hepatitis A and B, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and other diseases. In addition, the Health Ministry’s district health offices have also not given travellers vaccinations.

Two days ago, there was optimism both at the Treasury and the Israel Nursing Association that an agreement was near on a 12 percent wage increase -- in addition to hikes that would be made for all public workers. But it quickly evaporated, and the sides disagreed on the length of the agreement (three to five years) and whether all nurses would receive the same increase or some -- those in hospitals, the periphery or in specialties with inadequate manpower) would receive pay rises differentially.

On Wednesday, union chief Ilana Cohen said that there had been no progress and that commitments made by the Treasury have been quickly rescinded. She continued that the nurses were seeking not only higher salaries but also conditions that would attract more to the profession to improve the quality of care for patients.

Cohen added that the nurses were willing to apply sanctions even beyond the January 22 elections if necessary. In "normal" conditions, hospitals are overcrowded and medical facilities stretched beyond capacity because of complications of the flu.

The school health service, which was privatized by the Treasury years ago except when public health nurses were re-hired in the south, is paralyzed; the private contractors who provide the services have been criticized by the State Comptroller over the past few years for not doing all they were hired to do in "normal" times.

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