updated 3/21/2007 7:52:50 AM ET 2007-03-21T11:52:50

Tens of thousands of Israeli workers launched an open-ended general strike on Wednesday that crippled the country’s airports, seaports, railways, government offices, banks, the stock exchange and many other services.

Marathon overnight talks between the Histadrut labor federation and the government failed to avert the walkout, which began at 9 a.m. because thousands of municipal workers haven’t been paid for months.

Past strikes have lasted for days, each day costing the economy tens of millions of dollars in losses.

Making one concession, the Histadrut labor union said it would open Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday to let in one incoming flight — so England’s national soccer team could land in time for a crucial Euro 2008 Championship qualifier match on Saturday.

General strikes in Israel encompass a wide array of services, and much of the country is paralyzed. Travelers are stranded at airports, cargo piles up at seaports, and stinking garbage accumulates on sidewalks. Government offices are shuttered, and state-run utilities operate on skeleton staffs, carrying out no repairs.

A Histadrut spokesman said as many as 15 0,000 workers throughout the country walked off the job.

Soccer team allowed to land
Ben Gurion International Airport, in an exceptional move, moved up flights and operated through the night so fewer travelers would be stranded by the walkout.

The labor federation announced it would allow the English team to land Thursday evening so it could prepare for its showdown with Israel’s national team.

Union boss Ofer Eini said he did not want to want to spoil the fun, or Israel’s chance of advancing, by forcing the game to be called off. So the Histadrut will allow the English team, match judges and other essential personnel to land.

Thousands of English soccer fans could find themselves left out by the airport shutdown. Israel has struggled to host big games in the past, but international soccer officials demurred because of security concerns. The Israel Football Association, eager to figure in the soccer spotlight, urged the labor union to reconsider its shutout of the fans.

“We are asking not to ruin the whole party that is planned here, so that we will not be perceived as a Third World country,” said Avi Luzon, chairman of the Israel Football Association.

But Eini said the union would make no exceptions for fans.

“It is more important to worry about a worker who has not been paid for half a year than for those fans who want to come and enjoy a game,” he said. “The English fans will have to watch the game from England.”

The Israeli economy also was counting on the game and its foreign fans to generate millions of dollars of income. The walkout is expected to deliver a tough blow to hotels, restaurants and bars.

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