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Just before the Sukkot holiday, the civil servants pulled a fast one, perhaps the best of the year. They "returned" to work on a Thursday at 12:30 in the afternoon, with four hours of work to go. On Friday they do not work anyway, and then the holiday began. This way they gained the "arrangement" of the work dispute at the expense of the collective holiday they took for a week. Today they are back to work sanctions.

The "arrangement" has been in place for years. According to it, the civil servants - and the municipal employees - take a collective holiday during the week of Sukkot. In return for a five-day holiday, they lose 3.5 vacation days. This time, in view of the work sanctions that began with the Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Civil Service Commissioner, Shmuel Hollander, could have suspended the "arrangement," but decided to go through with it anyway, as if there was nothing wrong.

The result was absurd. On the one hand, the civil servants are not carrying out their function. They do not issue passports, do not provide for the handicapped or the single mothers at the National Insurance Institute, do not do tax returns, do not release goods through customs, and in doing nothing they do harm to the whole populace. But they continue to enjoy the "arrangement" as if everything is normal, and they are fulfilling their part of the bargain. This is certainly a strange method of pressing striking civil servants to end their sanctions, and it is not certain why Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allowed it to go on.

After all, the population does not receive any services - yet the striking employees suffer no damages. The government will not pay the 3000 civil servants who "receive the public" for only two days of three weeks' of sanctions. For another 25,000 civil servants, the government is planning to cut 20 percent of their wages in response to their work sanctions.

In other words, it's very inexpensive to strike in Israel.

There is a big difference between the strike at the ports and these work sanctions. In the former, the striking port workers were faced by the industrialists and traders who suffered heavily from the strike and had full force of their political connections and economic power. Two demonstrations against the strike, organized by the industrialists' organization, led to violence at the port gates. The press received daily reports from the commercial and industrial organizations, complaining of the daily losses and damage to the economy. The pressure contributed to an end of the strike. For now.

This time, those who suffer most are the weaker strata of society. Those who need the National Insurance Institute in order to receive supplements to their meager income, or those who need authorization in order to receive unemployment pay, and whose political and economic influence is limited. They have no one to protest against, nor do they have an influential representative to meet with the ministers of finance and industry.

While the work sanctions also affect industry and commerce, the damages are relatively minor. Eitan Rob, director of customs, is now enabling the release of goods with the use of clearing agents working for private firms, and thus bypassing the import-export issue. As a result the customs agents can abuse only passengers who arrive at air terminals, delaying their passage.

There are three reasons for the strike:

1. The government decisions in matters of health, on the consolidation and closing of hospitals.

2. The government decisions in matters of pensions; cutting 1 percent of salaries starting in January 2004, which will be increased to 2 percent by the start of 2005.

3. Twenty decisions on structural reorganization in various ministries, including the consolidation of customs and income tax, transforming the Public Works Department into a state-owned company, etc.

These decisions are expected to result in the dismissal of 600 ministry employees, 600 public works employees, and another 800 will go as a result of various consolidations - on the whole 2,000 staffers. The Histadrut labor federation argues that in a previous plan they signed in May, they had already agreed to 1,000 dismissals, so an additional 2000 "is impossible."

But the Israeli economy is in an impossible situation. The drop in economic activity and the shrinking of the GDP have brought about a situation in which, in spite the sharp budget cuts of the past three years, the public sector still contributes to 54 percent of the GDP, the highest proportion of all Western countries. The deficit in the budget is still dangerously high, at nearly 6 percent this year and an estimated 4 percent next year. Therefore, Netanyahu has no option but to order lay-offs in the public sector, exactly like the dismissals taking place in the private sector.