The National Labor Court deliberated late last night on a request for an injunction against the paralyzing nationwide strike that began yesterday. The hearing was expected to continue into the early hours this morning, leaving the future of the public-sector strike unclear as of press time last night.

The judges summoned Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, Histadrut Chairman Amir Peretz and Union of Local Authorities Chairman Adi Eldar to appear before them at 11:30 P.M., and only after hearing their positions was the court slated to issue a decision.

The strike affected all government agencies, including ministries, local authorities, the ports, the railroads, the post office and the airports. The Histadrut labor federation announced the strike primarily to protest the many employees of municipalities and religious councils who have not been paid for months.

Prior to the court hearing, Peretz declared that it would continue until the workers are paid. The strike is also protesting proposed cuts in the 2005 budget that will lower the wages of civil servants and see hundreds laid off.

The injunction was requested by the Manufacturers Association and the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, which argued that the general strike was devastating the economy, having caused losses of some NIS 950 million yesterday alone. They said that a strike by unpaid local authority and religious council workers was legitimate, but not sympathy strikes by other public-sector workers.

The state was far harsher in its brief to the court, terming the strike an abuse of power, and charging that it was called for political reasons.

Earlier yesterday, representatives from the Finance Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Union of Local Authorities and the Histadrut held talks in Jerusalem, but made little progress toward ending the strike.

"I call on the Histadrut to show national responsibility and stop the unjustified strike, which is causing great suffering to Israeli citizens," said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prior to the court hearing.

Justice Minister Yosef Lapid echoed this sentiment in stronger terms, telling a Justice Ministry seminar that Histadrut Chairman Amir Peretz "is acting on the principle of `murder and inherit.' First local factions of the Histadrut refuse to sign recovery agreements that would allow funds to be given to the local authorities in order to pay workers' wages, then the Histadrut launches a nationwide strike because the funds weren't delivered."

Unless recovery plans are implemented in the local authorities, he added, "this crisis will be back in six months," because the money would again be exhausted.

Netanyahu told Haaretz that 90 local authorities have already received the money needed to pay wages after signing recovery plans, but in 32 other towns, the Histadrut has barred workers from signing the plans.

Because of the strike, the Interior Ministry did not issue passports, identity cards or other official government documents; the Government Employment Service did not register people for unemployment benefits; and the National Insurance Institute was closed to the public.

The railways were idle, except for a few trains that were kept running to facilitate the transportation of soldiers, while the Egged and Dan bus lines continued to operate as usual. Seaports were also shut down, with no ships loaded or unloaded.

The Bezeq telephone company stopped fixing breakdowns, as did the Israel Electric Corporation and the Mekorot Water Company. The Postal Service did not deliver mail, and the Oil Refineries did not deliver gasoline to gas stations, causing long lines at the stations as worried drivers hastened to fill up.

Garbage was collected only in the 20 or so local authorities that hire private trash collection firms.

Although airplanes already in the air were supposed to be allowed to land at Ben-Gurion Airport yesterday, four El Al planes had to land abroad: two in Larnaca, Cyprus, one in Vienna and one in Budapest. Moreover, passengers' baggage was not unloaded from flights that were allowed to land.

In addition, many outgoing flights were canceled, and the airlines urged passengers to keep in touch for information about additional cancelations.

Some passengers who could not take off from Ben-Gurion tried crossing the Jordanian border to continue their travels from Amman. However the border crossings were also closed yesterday, and that, combined with the airport closure, stranded an estimated 15,000 Israelis overseas.

Government hospitals and those belonging to the Clalit Health Maintenance Organization were on a Shabbat schedule, meaning that only emergency operations or laboratory tests were carried out. Doctors at Clalit offices continued receiving patients, but the nursing and administrative staff were absent.

Though the banks are also striking, the Histadrut authorized bank employees to refill automatic teller machines as needed, and to carry out foreign currency transactions.

While courthouse workers are striking, judges are not, leading Judge Boaz Okun, director of the Courts Administration, to announce that litigants must attend scheduled hearings.

Schools remained open yesterday, as the teachers unions are not part of the Histadrut. However, administrative personnel are striking, which is expected to cause disruptions in school services as the strike wears on.

Some preschools were closed, but others were kept open after parents agreed to fill in for striking teachers' aides.

No disruptions are expected in special-education schools.