Court intervention halts Israeli strike halted as court intervenes

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More than 500,000 workers began returning to work yesterday when Israel's labour federation suspended a nationwide strike eight hours after it began, a labour federation spokeswoman said.

"The workers are beginning to return to work gradually," said the spokeswoman for the Histadrut, which groups the country's labour unions.

Sunday is a regular working day in Israel, and the strike shut airports, government offices, banks and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

The decision to suspend the strike followed a labour court ruling that limited the action to eight hours pending another hearing this morning.

The Histadrut spokeswoman said the unions would decide what further action to take after the court hearing today. "But no more strikes are expected until after the holidays," she said. A three-week holiday period begins on Wednesday night with the Jewish New Year.

Israel's national airline El Al brought forward 25 flights to Saturday night at Tel Aviv airport which was empty yesterday morning.

The Histadrut said it was protesting at the government's sell-off of companies and at plans to restructure the economy. But the core issue was a disputed deal to compensate public sector employees covered by less favourable pension plans.

The deal was signed just days before the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, came to power in May 1996. Finance minister Yaacov Neeman called the deal a political document and said it had no legal standing. At a cabinet meeting yesterday, the Israeli government expressed support for Mr Neeman's position and called on the Histadrut to return to the negotiating table.