Israeli airline workers end two-day strike over EU deal

Israeli airline workers ended a two-day strike on Monday after protesting against the government's approval of a commercial aviation deal with Europe, a trade union said.

The strike, which began Sunday and left frustrated travellers stranded till late Monday, "has ended after an agreement was made with the treasury," Histadrut Labour Federation spokeswoman Dafna Cohen-Nuriel told AFP.

Under the deal that broke the strike, the finance ministry agreed to pay 98 percent of the security costs of Israeli airlines El Al, Arkia and Israir, according to a report on public radio.

The three airlines had said they could not compete with European carriers if the market was opened up, because of how much they needed to spend on Israeli government-imposed security measures, including the hiring of vast numbers of security staff.

They cancelled nearly all their domestic and international flights on Sunday as the government approved the "Open Skies" deal with European Union, which is aimed at opening up and integrating their markets.

In line with the Open Skies deal, European Union airlines will operate direct flights to Israel from anywhere in the world and Israeli carriers will also fly to airports across the EU, in a move that will reduce flight costs for travellers.

At Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on Monday, the sense of frustration at the strike was palpable among travellers who were unable to find seats on alternative airlines.

Many looked haggard after spending the night at the airport's Terminal 3, some in sleeping bags, an AFP correspondent said.

Some said they had not even received food coupons from the strike-hit airlines.

"We have tried to sleep here but it's very hard, and now we are waiting for a flight to Paris," said a French student called Zacharie.

"This is very, very difficult for us."

"We were supposed to leave at 3:00 pm yesterday (1200 GMT on Sunday), and we are still at the airport," fellow student Vincent Natural told AFP.

A spokesman for the Israeli flights authority told AFP that 48 Israeli flights carrying 6,800 passengers had been scheduled for the day but that only three or four of them had taken off after receiving special permission.

He said the Israeli carriers had made efforts to find alternative flights for those booked to fly with them.

Israeli airlines fear the EU deal would result in widespread layoffs due to the high security expenses they bear, and the possibility of alliances that international airlines would make excluding Israel.

But Israeli officials say the deal will reduce the costs of flights to and from the Jewish state, thus increasing incoming tourism and boosting the economy.

The airlines have called off further striking which was set for Tuesday after the breakthrough agreement with the government.

El Al chief Eliezer Shkedi was satisfied with the finance ministry's agreement to take on security costs, which account for tens of millions of dollars of the company's spending every year, public radio said.