Petrol queues in Israel as paralysing strike looms

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The Independent Online

Israelis queued for petrol and other basic goods yesterday on the eve of a general strike threatening to paralyse the economy.

Israeli workers flexed their muscles as Treasury and union negotiators tried to avert the mass stoppage due to begin this morning. They closed Ben-Gurion international airport for two hours and turned away two tankers bringing millions of litres of oil to Ashdod port.

El Al laid on three additional flights last night to London, Paris and New York after unions announced they would shut down the airport indefinitely from 8am today. Motorists were queuing at petrol stations to fill their tanks before stocks ran dry. The government claimed it had enough supplies to last into the middle of the week but the unions ordered drivers to stop deliveries to garages.

The main target of the strike, called by the Histadrut trade union federation, is the public sector but the work-to-rule that preceded it is already causing millions of shekels of damage to private businesses, hit by delays in imports and exports.

If the stoppage goes ahead, it would disrupt public transport, postal services, banking, garbage collection and hospitals. Ministries and local council offices would close. Electric and water company technicians would not repair breakdowns. The government plans to seek back-to-work orders for vital services.

The "mega" strike brings to a climax a power struggle between Binyamin Netanyahu, the Finance Minister, and Amir Perez, the Histadrut chairman. The immediate cause is a government plan to reduce pensions and raise the retirement age to 67. But Mr Netanyahu also wants to do for the Israeli economy what Margaret Thatcher did for Britain: privatise public companies, slash civil service payrolls, cut the unions down to size and abolish the "dependence culture" of the welfare state. The Histadrut, which remains a force despite its near bankruptcy, is fighting back.

At the same time, political and military leaders are recognising that the economy will not recover if they do not open a safety valve for the 3.5 million occupied Palestinians celebrating a sombre Ramadan under siege.

As a first step, the army issued 10,000 permits for workers to cross from the Gaza Strip into Israel yesterday. About 6,000 men, all married and over 35, crossed at Erez before dawn. Most of them work in an industrial zone near the border. The other 4,000 were turned back for security or bureaucratic reasons.

Before leaving for a three-day official visit to Russia yesterday, Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, hinted at a resumption of high-level peace talks once his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmad Qureia, presents his expanded government tomorrow. The left, paralysed by Mr Sharon's landslide victory last January, is starting to stir. Up to 100,000 Israelis attended a peace rally in Tel-Aviv on Saturday marking the eighth anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing fanatic.