JERUSALEM, July 24 (JTA) — Tens of thousands of Israeli public sector workers protesting privatization went on strike Thursday, grounding flights at Ben-Gurion Airport and disrupting train service. Members of the Histadrut trade union federation called the strike in solidarity with Bezek phone company workers, who had walked out to protest the sale of a 12.5 percent stake in the company to the New York-based investment firm, Merrill Lynch. Thursday’s sympathy strike stranded thousands of travelers at the airport, where outbound flights were grounded and incoming planes were delayed. Ground crews at the airport refused to unload luggage or service planes that had landed. Foreign Minister David Levy, in Europe, had to delay his return because of the strike. Workers at Israel Aircraft Industries and Rafael Defense Industries also went on strike. The electric company worked with a scaled-back staff; the Mekorot water company carried out only emergency repairs. Though the government had issued orders Wednesday night for Bezek workers to carry out essential repairs, tens of thousands of lines in the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas were still down the following day. Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman sharply criticized the union members for staging the strike, and said the government was considering issuing emergency back-to-work orders. Histadrut Chairman Amir Peretz called for an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the matter. Union leaders said the Merrill Lynch deal violated understandings between Bezek employee representatives and the government. The union said that the government had planned to consult them on all privatization moves, but had not informed them of the sale. Bezek workers demanded that proceeds from the sale go to implementing wage, severance and pensions agreements with the government.