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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 April, 2003, 20:17 GMT 21:17 UK
Israel shut down by general strike
Israeli public sector workers striking
The strike is set to paralyse Israel

About 700,000 public sector workers in Israel have begun an indefinite strike in protest at government plans to cut jobs and wages.

As the strike was ending its first day, Israel's parliament approved the 11bn shekel ($2.4bn; 1.5bn) cutback plan that sparked the dispute.

The industrial action has shut down almost all public services, with the closure of ports, airports, schools and universities, the stock exchange and government offices.

Long queues formed outside banks, as fears grew that cash dispensers would soon run out of money, and chaos broke out at Ben Gurion international airport in the morning as travellers fought to board earlier flights ahead of the closure.

National parks and public cultural sites also closed their doors.

Binyamin Netanyahu is behaving like a dictator
Amir Peretz, labour group leader

This plan will save the economy - it will bring growth
Binyamin Netanyahu

The Histadrut, the country's main labour federation, called for the industrial action after Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu unveiled 10% cuts across the board for ministry budgets.

He also said up to one in 10 public sector jobs would go while a number of pension conditions, including the retirement age, would be changed. Other welfare spending is to be slashed.

Histadrut secretary general Amir Peretz said the organisation had decided to press ahead with the protest despite a suicide attack in Tel Aviv on Wednesday morning that killed several people.

Have your say

"Binyamin Netanyahu is behaving like a dictator," he told public radio.

Recession

Mr Netanyahu says the austerity measures are needed to tackle the worst recession in the country's 55-year history and reduce a 16bn shekel hole in the country's finances.

"This plan will save the economy. It will bring growth," he told Channel Two television.

CLOSED
Ben Gurion international airport
All ports and border crossings
Hospitals and emergency services working weekend shifts
Tel Aviv Stock Exchange
Banks, and ATMs will not be refilled
All government offices
No rubbish collections
No parking tickets to be issued
Radio Reshet Gimmel and IBA television off air
Telephone call centres closed

Presenting his package to Israel's parliament (Knesset) on Wednesday, while jeered by the opposition, Mr Netanyahu said: "The government's overdraft is growing and international banks have told us they will not give us more money (to finance it)."

He also said the US had made an offer of $9bn in loan guarantees for Israel conditional on the economic plan being implemented.

Parliament voted 56 to 46 in favour of the plan but it faces two more readings before becoming law.

The chairman of the Israeli Chambers of Commerce, Uriel Lynn, told the BBC's World Business Report that the strike would hurt economic recovery.

"This is going to be very damaging to the Israeli economy, it will increase unemployment.

"We will have such a huge deficit in our budget, about 6% of national product. It's really going to shake the stability of our country."

Too severe

The Histadrut has acknowledged that Israel's economy is in tatters after two years of a renewed Palestinian uprising, which has hit key sectors including tourism and construction and slashed tax receipts.

But it says the proposed budget cuts are too severe and has criticised the finance ministry for seeking to force them through by legislation rather than a collective agreement with the once all-powerful unions.

The global downturn has also aggravated the situation, hitting Israel's once lucrative technology exports while security spending has ballooned.

Analysts say Mr Netanyahu is unlikely to make any concessions and that the Knesset will approve the first reading of his proposed budget cuts on Wednesday.

"The Histadrut walked out on the talks, and today we believe we will be vindicated when the budget package passes parliament," said Uri Ginossar, a spokesman for the finance ministry.

Warning

Business leaders have estimated the strike will cost the country 400m shekels a day in the first two days of the strike and 250m shekels a day thereafter.

The 700,000 on strike account for 12% of Israel's population and a much greater percentage of the total workforce.

The finance ministry has said that every month the economic plan is delayed adds 1.5bn shekels to the budget deficit.

Oded Tira, head of the Industrialists' Association, said the strike would "hit private businesses very hard and totally paralyse their exports".

These are some of the comments you sent us on the issues raised in this story.

I, as anyone else who do not live where our distinguished ministers live (mostly abroad, naturally), am affected by the garbage piling up in the streets, by the shortage of cash in ATMs, by the disruption of services and public transportation, and yet, I am 100% behind Mr Peretz and the strike, and I believe him when he says he is fighting for the future face of our society. I don't want us to be as unjust and cruel as the US, which is one of the most unjust societies in the world today. I cannot tolerate such disdain of human life as we see here everyday. And here this strike is connected to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Because disdain of human life doesn't stop at population X, but rather, its circles grow all the time. First, we don't care about Palestinians. And then, we don't care about the unemployed, the poor, the hungry. All we care about is the small comforts of our day, all we want is to repress the real garbage, and let the government lie to us, steal from us, and push us over, slowly enough, so when we finally wake up, it will be really too late to do anything about it. I just hope people will stop feeling so impotent, acknowledge the importance of this strike, and start moving themselves out to the streets, until this government and its vile so-called "economic plan", is history.
Yonit, Israel

I am unemployed and usually sign on weekly at my local job centre. The strike will mean that my social security benefit will be delayed and I can't check out the latest vacancies. Some commentators predict that the strike may be temporarily suspended next Tuesday on soldiers' remembrance day so as to enable relatives to pay their respects at military cemeteries throughout the country without unnecessary inconvenience.
Ellis, Israel

Maybe this will help move forward the independence of Palestine as the cost of the Israeli occupation starts to drown their economy.
Steven Francis, UK

To agree with Steven Francis, the best way to reduce the budget deficit would be to reduce the massive defence spending of the Israeli government. To do this though, Israel needs to be at peace. Perhaps inviting international peacekeepers to enforce a peace agreement would bring this. I make no suggestions as to the way forward on negotiating the peace but it appears to me that all sides are at fault, especially the international community which continually fails to bring the required level of pressure to bear on either side. Perhaps if our government thought that brokering the peace in Israel and Palestine was a vote winner we might see more movement - or am I too cynical?
Richard Chalkley, UK

The apartheid government in South Africa only began to tackle reality of negotiation when the economy began to unravel. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to relive it.
Axel, South Africa

It's interesting that the US is willing to back Israel with a $9 billion loan guarantee if this economic plan is passed, when the only guarantee of economic progress is peace with the Palestinians. I think the U.S. is taking the wrong approach ... again.
Paul Griffitts, USA

While I am only marginally affected by the strike, as long as it does not go on for a long time, I fully support the unions in opposing the government on this issue. The government has singled out the poor, the disadvantaged and the lower paid as being responsible for the current economic debacle. At the same time it has given tax breaks to the rich. It continues to pour billions of shekels into the West Bank settlements. However the most dangerous bone of contention is the proposed anti-labour legislation. In this week when Israel pays homage to those who perished in the Holocaust we would do well to remember that the Nazis paved their way to power by destroying the organised labour movement in Germany.
Maurice Herman, Israel

I studied in Israel a few years ago and I remember there being a Histadrut strike back then. Although it was not as severe as the current one, I do recall that trash sat around for weeks in the hot summer and many government offices were closed, as well as university classes cancelled. I am thoroughly disappointed that the BBC as well as all posters here have turned this internal economic issue into an Israeli-Palestinian Arab issue.
Kevin, USA

It is most interesting that the United States has offered $9bn in aid on condition of the massive wage and job cuts. There is a similar move here that is still in the nascent state - there is a bill currently under consideration in Congress that will deprive the hourly paid workers of this country of their over-time pay rate. And yet there is precious little news of it in the media. I want to know why the Unions and Democrats have not spoken out loudly against this. The Project for the New American Century is a plan that will dramatically widen the gap between the wealthy few and the soon to be impoverished! many. It will happen here and in any country that the US has managed to "buy" with their conditional loan packages.
Carolyn Deck Romano, United States

There is a lot of opposition to this strike, and I know many people who are working as usual. It appears to many of us that Mr Amir Peretz, head of the Histadrut is now fighting to protect the nice incomes of himself and his highly-paid managers, the ordinary workers are being cynically manipulated in his fight with the Likud government. He answered Benjamin Netanhyahu's challenge with ad-hominem comments!.
Meira, Israel

Kudos to Kevin. It is predictable, but no less sad, that every mention of Israel somehow turns into mass demonisation by BBC viewers. The next time a story appears about British economic problems, I expect to see every self-righteous commentator on this board discuss how the "real story" is the cost of Britain's military occupation of Northern Ireland.
Matthew Leader, USA

This has got little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian situation but more the effect of the worldwide slowdown in the hi-tech sector. A similar economic slowdown caused recession in Britain in the early 1980s. Here too the unions shied away from the economic reality that governments cannot keep pouring in money to state industries and to increasing public sector wages ad infinitum. The private sector in Israel has been severely affected by the slowdown resulting in job cuts and wage reductions. Why won't the unions realise that they too must take a share of the burden? Like most strikes, this included, it comes down to power politics. Dare I say it but Israel may need to take Maggie's approach to bring the unions down to earth?
Daniel, Tel Aviv, Israel




WATCH AND LISTEN
Uriel Lynn, Israeli Chambers of Commerce
"This is going to be a total strike, it will be very damaging to the Israeli economy"



SEE ALSO:
Israel prepares for shutdown
29 Apr 03  |  Business
Israel juggles budget strike threat
02 Apr 03  |  Business


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