Fears Mount That Eilat May Become Ghost Town After Mines Are Shut

Fear continued to mount in Eilat today that Israel’s southern-most city and sole outlet to the Red Sea would become a ghost town after the Timna copper mines are closed down and its dismissed employes are forced to find jobs elsewhere. Minister of Commerce and Industry Haim Barlev, who flew to Eilat Monday night after a general strike protesting the shut-down paralyzed the town, told the Knesset yesterday that there was no hope of getting the money-losing copper works out of the red for the next five years.

The Timna mine workers won a reprieve of uncertain duration yesterday when Barlev promised that the copper mines would not be shut down until alternative jobs are found for its 700 employes. But he hedged his promise on further consultation with his colleagues on the ministerial economic committee which had recommended to the government Sunday night that the deficit-ridden industry be shut down.

New job prospects are also uncertain. Labor Minister Moshe Baram promised that the dis- missed mine workers would be employed building a new airport seven miles north of Eilat, a project already approved by the Cabinet but not scheduled to start for three months. Israel Aircraft Industries was reported planning to locate a new metal plant in Eilat but that will not be ready for at least three years. Baram conceded that even those projects would not provide jobs for all of the laid-off mine workers.

Moreover, those projects are in the construction field and Eilat residents were wondering today what would become of the scientists, engineers, lab technicians and copper specialists employed in office jobs at Timna. They cannot become tractor operators or construction workers overnight, it was remarked; and what of the wives of these white collar employes, many of whom teach at Eilat’s schools? They would leave if their husbands have to find jobs elsewhere and the local school system would suffer from a shortage of teachers.

JOB PROBLEMS BEING EXPLORED

Barlev told the Knesset that the government had no choice but to shut down the mines in view of the continuing depression in copper prices on the world market. He observed that in other countries, better mines than Timna had been closed down for the same reason. He estimated that if the works were kept going they would lose IL 67 million in 1976 on top of an IL 60 million deficit last year and that the outlook for 1977 and 1978 was even worse.

Meanwhile, a special committee has been set up in Eilat with the participation of Histadrut’s Trade Union Department and various government agencies to explore the job problems with Eilat authorities. The hope is to find employment in the Eilat area for as many of the laid-off workers as possible. But the outlook was not good. Apart from the copper mines, Eilat’s chief sources of jobs are the port, the oil pipeline to Ashkelon and tourism.

The town has already suffered a decline in ocean-borne commerce since the Suez Canal was reopened last June and, as the Egyptians are allowing Israel-bound cargoes–though not Israel-flag ships–to use the waterway, the importance of the pipeline may diminish.

Although it enjoys an excellent climate–Eilat was sunny yesterday with temperatures in the 70s while the rest of Israel was near freezing–the town cannot depend solely on tourism because of its isolation from central Israel. The highway trip is long and tedious and Israel’s internal airline, Arkia, has limited capacity. Transport Minister Gad Yaacobi is planning a Beersheba-Eilat railroad but that project, not yet begun, will not be completed for several years.

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