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Unemployment dropped to 9.8 percent - or 262,300 people - in February, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported yesterday.

Joblessness has been in decline throughout 2004, after two years of steady and steep climbing. The average rate of unemployment last year was 10.4 percent of the labor force, slightly down from 10.7 percent in 2003. Israel's highest unemployment rate, 10.9 percent, was recorded in November and December of 2003.

Yet increasing numbers of people are unable to find work over long periods of time. In 2004, 24.2 percent of the jobless sought work for more than a year, compared with 18 percent in 2003.

Also, many of the people who found work only received part-time positions. Most of these people are considered partially unemployed, since they would have preferred full-time work.

The definition of unemployed is an adult who did not work at all in the week of the survey, and who had actively sought work in the past four weeks, whether by signing up at the Employment Service or by other means. The CBS figures include people not eligible for unemployment benefits.

Demand for workers in the financial and accounting sector grew by an impressive 25 percent in the first quarter, according to Nekudat Peticha, a placement agency in the financial and capital markets.

Ruth Sinai adds: The Employment Service reported that the number of job vacancies had leaped 16 percent in the past month. That is, the service had some 20,600 jobs on its books waiting to be filled, up from 17,800 in February.

Esther Dominicini, head of the service, attributed the increase to a closer relationship with prospective employers. Half of the jobs were in nonprofessional positions, while there was a sharp increase in demand for agricultural workers and clerks.