EILAT (Jan. 6)
Eilat returned to normal today following yesterday’s general strike protesting the government’s decision to close down the money-losing Timna copper mines which employ 700 members of this town’s labor force. The angry citizenry was mollified somewhat by the visit last night of Minister of Commerce and Industry Haim Barlev who promised that the mines would continue to operate until other jobs are found in the Eilat area for the workers facing dismissal. But Barlev was able to speak only in general terms and gloom and anxiety persisted over the town’s uncertain future.
Eilat’s residents were shocked and infuriated by the news Sunday night that the government would act on a recommendation by the ministerial economic committee to shut down the mines immediately owing to a mounting deficit caused by a prolonged depression in world copper prices. Yesterday Eilat was paralyzed by a spontaneous strike that closed the harbor, the airport, local schools, shops and businesses while members of workers committees blocked highways leading to the town.
Barlev, although a member of the ministerial economic committee, was critical of the haste with which the government acted. “One does not close such an enterprise overnight,” he told members of the Knesset economic committee in Jerusalem yesterday.
He repeated that remark to Eilat citizens last night. But it was Barlev himself who estimated the Timna mines’ losses at IL 60 million this year and said there was no justification to keep the works going under such conditions. Estimated losses over the next three years were put at IL 250 million and the government which has just approved an austerity budget for fiscal 1976-77, is unable to subsidize further operation of the mines.
RAP DECISION WITHOUT CONSULTATION
Barlev, accompanied by Histadrut secretary general Yehuram Meshel, flew down late yesterday in a military transport because all commercial flights to Eilat were suspended. Angry crowds booed him at the airport and he was whisked off to an isolated fire house in a far corner of the airport for consultations with Mayor Gaddi Katz and representatives of the Eilat Labor Council and the Timna Workers Committee.
Later, however, the Minister spoke to the Eilat crowds. He heard them complain that decisions affecting their livelihood were made without consultation by government officials “sitting up north” in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The presence of a Cabinet Minister and the Histadrut chief to discuss their problem moderated the bitter feelings somewhat. It indicated at least that the government was concerned and that the fate of Eilat was not left in the hands of faceless bureaucrats pouring over columns of figures.
But Barlev could not make specific promises as to how long the mines would keep running and exactly what alternative jobs would be made available. His promises were continued on further discussions with his colleagues on the ministerial economic committee. The general strike was called off, nevertheless.