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Hundreds of travelers in four flights from the U.S. and the Far East who landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport yesterday were forced to leave the airport without their suitcases. The suitcase conveyor belt was out of operation due to the strike called by the Histadrut labor federation.

The only planes landing at the airport yesterday by dispensation of the Histadrut were from remote destinations like the U.S. and eastern Asia, while flights from closer locations such as Europe did not take off for Israel. However, the Histadrut decided to allow the landing of a plane carrying the families of the kidnapped soldiers from Brussels this morning. There were no departures either, except for one flight bound for Kiev, which was granted special permission on humanitarian grounds. El Al took preemptive steps, and rescheduled 13 flights for earlier departures to various destinations before the strike went into effect.

Economists of the Manufacturers Association estimated yesterday that damages resulting from the first day of the strike in the public sector amount to NIS 350 million, as a result of loss of production. This figure is quoted in the court petition filed yesterday by the association, which requested the National Labor Court to issue an injunction to the parties to come up with a solution to the problem of unpaid salaries and social benefits to local government workers and to end the strike quickly. The Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, which also approached the National Labor Court regarding the strike, has estimated that the daily cost reaches NIS 500 million.

The reason for the Histadrut's declared strike in the public sector is a delay of a year or more in payment of salaries to dozens of local authority employees (many of them in the Arab sector), religious councils and fire fighting services. In addition, local authorities have also allegedly failed to deposit provident funds, pension funds or other benefits debited to employees' salaries, in amounts totaling tens of millions of shekels - a criminal offense.

Histadrut chair Ofer Eini, said yesterday that he would not be content with a solution to the local authorities' salary debts, but would demand that the Ministry of Interior take action against heads of the relevant local authorities, religious councils and fire fighting services, personally.

The Manufactures Association presdient commented, "The Ministry of Interior cannot brush off its responsibility for failure to pay employee salaries." He added, "This is a serious management problem. There are 45 municipal authorities that are problematic in terms of their financial management, and 45 accountants, who know how to stabilize their situations, should be appointed to them".

Senior sources in the Ministry of Finance announced yesterday that the ministry would be deducting amounts from striking employees' salaries according to their participation - full daily salaries from strikers, and 30 percent from employees participating in a slowdown.

Eini commented in response that, "Everything seems very efficient and free of bureaucracy when it comes to deducting from employee salaries, but a solution to a problem of failure to pay salaries and benefits seems to be bureaucracy-ridden."

Israelis stranded abroad

Due to the public sector strike, groups of Israelis and tourists are stranded overseas, groups of Israelis preparing to depart on organized tours are stuck in the country and tourists whose vacations in Israel have ended are marooned here. Travel agents say it is often difficult to find a solution for groups, because of the unavailability of hotel rooms. Tourists and businessmen traveling on their own abroad must be handled on an individual basis; some are stranded at conferences and exhibitions abroad, because hotels are completely full.

CEO of the travel agents association, Yossi Fattal, said the association had in the past assisted, when asked to do so by their clients, to sue the Histradrut labor federation. The association has in the past claimed that a prohibition against closing down Ben Gurion International Airport should be legislated, because its closure violates Israeli citizens' basic right to travel freely. "We have suggested to the government, and we repeat our suggestion, that in such cases the military take over operation of the airport, and the country's only gateway remain open" said Fattal.