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The number of requests for unemployment benefits in December is the highest for any month since the end of 2002, according to the National Insurance Institute. That number - 18,500 - also marks an increase of 23 percent since September, the month the NII chose as a base of comparison so as to avoid the possible complicating influences of the holiday and post-holiday period in October and November.

If all the requests are approved - and the vast majority usually is approved - the number of recipients of unemployment benefits will rise to about 70,000. That is close to the level in 2003, at the end of the last recession.

The statistics appear to be signaling a trend of rising unemployment in the coming months, NII director general Esther Dominisini said yesterday. Daniel Gottlieb, who heads the institute's planning and research department, expects unemployment to rise from about 6 percent to 7.5 percent or 8 percent.

Most of the requests for unemployment benefits came from the Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa areas, which saw the number of new unemployment requests jumping to more than double the national average. The NII research department said this indicates most of the dismissals over the last few months have been at knowledge-based companies. Unemployment bureau data supports this, showing a sharp rise in the number of people with college degrees who requested unemployment benefits in November.

The south has seen a rise of 11 percent in new requests for unemployment payments, and in northern cities like Tiberias, Nazareth and Nahariya, the increase in unemployment requests was lower than the national average. The NII expects the number of new request to increase as a result of the war.

Over the last few months, the NII has been preparing for an increase in the number of people eligible for unemployment benefits and has filed a report with the treasury and Social Affairs Ministry on improving the unemployment system. The rules determining eligibility for unemployment have become far tougher over the past few years, and the duration for which Israel provides unemployment benefits is quite short in comparison to other developed countries. The treasury has already approved one component of the plan, and those seeking unemployment benefits no longer have to have worked for 12 of the 18 months prior to their dismissal. The regulations now state that to receive the benefits, unemployed Israelis must have worked for nine months out of the year preceding dismissal.