Mountains of garbage lay in Israeli streets Sunday and planes were grounded by a nationwide strike over pay, declared by the country's national union just nine days before the election for prime minister.
The union federation, Histadrut, called the strike Sunday, shutting down train services and airports, including Ben Gurion international, and other public services including garbage collection, Histadrut spokesman Giora Tsur told AFP.
From Monday, hospitals will reduce also their services, providing only emergency treatment, he said. Israel's utility companies will not provide repairs to government offices, and the Bezeq telephone company has stopped offering directory assistance.
The general strike went into effect at 11:00 am (0900 GMT) Sunday, although many services have been disrupted by industrial action over the past week, and involves an estimated 400,000 workers, Tsur said.
Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv, the country's transportation hub, canceled 10 flights in the first few hours Sunday. "We are taking it hour by hour," an airport spokeswoman said. She added that with the walkout the airport could only handle the arrival of charter planes, which carry roughly 150 passengers each.
Tsur refused to speculate on when the disruption would end, saying: "It's unlimited." Histadrut and government negotiators met non-stop from Saturday evening to Sunday afternoon in hopes of stopping a general strike but no breakthrough was reached, said Tsur. "We were close to an agreement, but it has blown up," he added.
Six days ago, the union had ordered "sanctions" to pressure the government to grant a 16 percent pay raise to state workers as opposed to the government offer of one percent.
The sanctions closed Israel's seaports and government administrative services and halted garbage collection in the three biggest cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, leaving some 7,600 tons of stinking refuse on the streets. Israeli public radio reported that there were 45 ships waiting to be unloaded in Israeli ports.
Tsur denied the unions were using the February 6 election for prime minister to pressure the government, saying they had raised their demands six months ago. "We did not know there would be elections," said Tsur.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak resigned in December, forcing a snap election that he is widely predicted to lose to his right-wing opponent Ariel Sharon. — (AFP, Jerusalem)
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )