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The nation's 600,000 civil servants launched a strike yesterday, effectively shuttering government service to the public. The public sector and the Histadrut labor federation are protesting delays in payment of salaries to local government and religious council employees and firefighters.

The public sector strike, now entering its second day, has grounded outgoing flights at Ben-Gurion International Airport, paralyzed seaports and train lines, and closed all land borders, government offices, employment bureaus, courts, National Insurance Institute (NII) branches, the Israel Lands Administration and vehicle licensing offices.

Oil Refineries are on strike, and if the strike does not end within two days, a shortage of gasoline may ensue, as fuel will not be delivered to gas stations.

Official documents such as passports are not being issued, and NII assessment committees are not meeting. Post office branches are open, but mail is not being delivered.

The local authority strike means garbage will not be collected and parking tickets will not be issued.

In anticipation of the strike, El Al rescheduled 13 flights that took off overnight Tuesday instead of during the day on Wednesday as planned. A few flights were given humanitarian exceptions by the Histadrut including a flight to Kiev carrying dozens of Ukrainian patients being treated in Israel and four incoming flights from distant locations. However, the hundreds of passengers on those flights were forced to leave their luggage at the airport as the cargo conveyor was not operating.

The union will also allow a flight bringing the Goldwasser and Regev families back from Brussels to land this morning. Last night, a flight from Amman was allowed to land as Israelis sought to return from travels via Jordan. Jordanian officials urged Israel to get the planeload of Israelis out of its territory, rather than send the Israelis to hotels in the capital.

An end to payment delays

The National Labor Tribunal yesterday heard petitions filed by major business sector organizations seeking an end to the strike. Histadrut chair Ofer Eini vowed, however, that the strike would continue until there was a clear blueprint to end the payment delays.

At 9:30 P.M., at the end of a several-hour hearing, tribunal president Judge Stephen Adler summoned Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson, Interior Minister Roni Bar-On, Eini and Manufacturers Association president Shraga Brosh in an effort to reach a consensus that would end the labor action.

The labor union blames the problem on the treasury's failure to fulfill an agreement under which it was to transfer money to local governments to pay salaries by September 30. "We declared a labor dispute on July 12, but hostilities broke out in the North that day and we decided to allow the nation to recover. Local government workers are fed up," the Histadrut said yesterday.

The Manu facturers Association petition asked the labor court to issue an injunction ordering the treasury, Interior Ministry and Union of Local Authorities to resolve the problem of withheld paychecks and social benefits within seven days, under court supervision.

NIS 350 million a day

The organization says each day of the strike is costing NIS 350 million, mostly by paralyzing exports and imports. The petition argues "local authority, religious council and fire service workers have the basic right to receive their pay and social benefits on time. It is their basic right to use all legal means to enforce that right; however, all public sector functioning cannot be halted for that right."

The Federation of Chambers of Commerce cited a higher figure in its petition, claiming that the first day of the strike had already cost Israel NIS 500 million.

Hirchson yesterday called on the Histadrut labor federation to end the strike. He said the strike was unnecessary in light of ongoing talks to resolve the problem.

Hirchson also said most local governments had reached agreements with the Histadrut and the treasury on the subject of salaries. The treasury alleges some local governments have racked up huge debts, and it is difficult to find solutions to their financial straits. The treasury also says these local authorities are improperly run and it will be impossible to transfer more money to them until their management issues are resolved.

Meanwhile yesterday, treasury wages director Eli Cohen instructed ministry directors general and civil service employers to dock striking workers' wages. The memo orders payroll divisions to withhold wages relative to the extent of the strike: in units that operate at partial capacity, partial wages will be paid; in units that go on full strike, all wages will be withheld.

Moti Bassok contributed to this report.