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General Strike Grips Israel, Crippling Gov’t, Airport and Banks

September 22, 2004
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From tourists to regular citizens going about their daily business, from the sick to the dead awaiting burial, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been stranded by a strike. As of Tuesday morning, Ben-Gurion International Airport had grounded flights and government ministries were shut down. Banks and financial markets were closed for business. Only skeleton crews staffed hospitals and even burial societies put down their shovels.

Fearing an economic paralysis that will cost Israel an estimated $214 million a day, the Finance Ministry petitioned Israel’s Labor Court to issue back-to-work injunctions.

But the Histadrut labor federation, which ordered the open-ended strike to protest nonpayment of salaries to thousands of municipal workers, vowed not to budge.

“I used to believe in the prime minister, the Knesset, and the courts, yet when I realized there are Israelis hungry for bread, I decided to act,” the Histadrut’s! chief, Amir Peretz, said.

But the labor action, with 400,000 workers staying home, could prove hazardous for at least 13 kidney patients from Assuta Hospital in Tel Aviv who were marooned while on a rare vacation in Croatia.

“These people need dialysis three times a week,” Sari Goldhart, a nurse accompanying the group, told Channel One television by phone. “If they do not get back to Israel, they could die.”

One Air Canada flight managed to land at Ben-Gurion before the sanctions went into effect, but other planes were turned away to European destinations such as Cyprus and Malta.

The Labor Court was expected to try to persuade Peretz to order the international airport and several seaports to operate as a goodwill concession.

“This situation is, quite simply, scandalous,” said Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing his third strike since taking office. There have also been several smaller protests, including a halt to offloading of cargo ships th! at cost importers millions of dollars and vexed new immigrants awaitin g their belongings.

Media polls suggest that at least 50 percent of Israelis feel sympathy for the Histadrut’s tough tactic, following mounting reports of thousands of municipal workers who have gone without pay for months or even years.

With ATMs fast running out of cash, even the most well-heeled Israelis may soon feel real empathy with compatriots who complain they cannot pay for basic utilities.

Netanyahu blamed the municipalities’ crisis on their failure to sign on to government “recovery programs,” which generally entail sweeping layoffs.

“The workers’ cause is just, but we must become efficient,” Netanyahu told reporters. “I am willing to fire 200 deputy mayors if that is what is needed to stop the waste.”

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