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Ashdod Port Paralyzed by Strike

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Ashdod, Israel’s second largest port, remained paralyzed today by a general strike of dock workers infuriated over a sentence imposed yesterday on their local union boss, Yehoshua Peretz. The incident, though similar to past labor strife in that volatile town of 55,000 populated largely by immigrants, has begun to take on national ramifications because it poses a test of the normal judicial process in Israel.

Premier Yitzhak Rabin considered the situation serious enough to suggest that Transport Minister Gad Yaacobi out short his present visit to the U.S. and return home to deal with the matter. Rabin said the main issue was the functioning of the port. Three ships sailed for Haifa yesterday to unload their cargoes there. Ten ships carrying general cargo and two with bulk cargoes of chemicals remained idle at the docks where longshoremen quit work yesterday leaving cranes with cargoes hanging in mid-air and vehicles blocking the port gates.

Shops, factories and schools were shut today as several hundred dockworkers assembled in the town square and marched to protest the sentence imposed on Peretz. The march was orderly and police who poured into the town yesterday kept a low profile on the outskirts, though they were ready to move in at the first sign of trouble, Justice Minister Haim Zadok said he would give the strikers a day to cool off before taking measures to reopen the port or close it down altogether.

SENTENCE VIEWED AS TOO SEVERE

The balding bearded, burly Peretz, known and adulated by the dockworkers as “The King of Ashdod,” was slapped with a 60-day jail term and an IL 5000 fine by Magistrate Abraham Sassoun yesterday for illegally exercising his “royal” prerogative two months ago when he closed down Ashdod port for a day over an alleged insult by a border policeman guarding the port gate. Peretz’s supporters and many neutral observers believe the sentence was too severe and that higher echelons–possibly in Histadrut–were concerned by Peretz’s power in Ashdod and decided to cut him down to size.

Rabin himself indicated today that he thought the sentence was too harsh. But he said, at a Tel Aviv municipality luncheon, that Israel was a country of law and order and the law must be preserved. He warned that the judiciary must be free from influence by outside factors. “The courts must carry out their duties according to law and must impose sentences according to law,” Rabin said.

Ashdod Mayor Tzvi Zilker, who went to Jerusalem yesterday for conferences with Zadok Police Minister Shlomo Hillel and senior officials of the justice, police and transport ministries, was told that the national authorities could not intervene in the local situation, Zadok who seemed to share the Mayor’s view that the sentence was too severe, said nevertheless that the longshoremen had to return to work and Peretz should appeal the sentence through normal Judicial channels.

MINOR INCIDENT LED TO SENTENCE

News of the sentence spread within minutes along the Ashdod docks yesterday and hundreds of longshoremen streamed out of the port area to the courthouse where scores of other Peretz supporters were already demonstrating. A door was smashed and a window was broken in the courthouse. Judge Sassoun and the chief prosecutor took shelter in the judge’s chambers.

Peretz, released on bail, emerged from the courthouse with his lawyer, Uri Ron, to the cheers of his supporters. He did nothing to calm them, however, but expressed indignation over his sentence. “Have I committed murder?” he asked as his followers roared their protest.

The fine and prison term–which will be extended by 50 days if the fine is not paid–was in sharp contrast to the nominal fines and suspended sentences meted out to striking Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline workers who fought pitched battles with police in Ashkelon harbor last summer, injuring several.

Peretz’s sentence stemmed from a relatively miner incident. The dock boss claimed he was insulted when a young border policeman, new to the job, failed to recognize him and demanded identification at the port gate two months ago, Peretz taught the policeman a “lesson” by closing down the port within minutes, Later, however, he admitted that he had acted hastily, called off the strike and shook hands with the policeman.

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