Port authority officials said that about 40 ships were anchored off the coast as a result of a walk-out on Tuesday by 2500 employees, protesting against plans to privatise Israel’s three ports of Ashdod, Haifa and Eilat.

Israeli Defence Minister, Meir Sheetrit, said the government had plans to run imports and exports out of the Jordanian port of Aqaba and Port Said in Egypt if the strike continued.

However, Amman said it would not let Israel use its port at Aqaba as an alternative.

Jordan's Information Minister Nabil Sharif said Israeli authorities had officially asked to use Aqaba but Amman had refused because such a move would overtax the port's facilities. 

Dock worker's at Egypt's Port Said said they are ready to welcome ships blocked at Israel's port.

About 40 ships are anchored off the coast of Israel because of 
the walk-out. 

"Port Said is big enough to handle the ships blocked off Israel
ports by the strike, and the container company in Port Said is ready to take the necessary measures," said the head of the port authority.

The cost of routing merchandise via Aqaba and Port Said, estimated as $200 million, would be deducted from the budget of the Israeli port authority, according to a newspaper.

First time move

“I hope that we can avoid resorting to such as unprecedented solution” as using Aqaba and Port Said, Amos Ron, Director-General of the port authority was quoted as saying.

In a further move to bypass the strike, Israel was also investigating the possibility of opening a private port in northern Haifa, according to military radio.

Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively.

Transportation Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has given an order to begin construction work on a private port on Thursday if the strike had not been broken by then.

There was no immediate confirmation of the plan by the Transport Ministry.

The Israeli cabinet was expected to discuss the strike at its weekly meeting on Wednesday, which has also led to large-scale departures and arrivals at Tel Aviv’s International Airport.

Unions promised unprecedented strikes after the government approved its tightened spending plan for 2004, in an attempt to lift the economy out of the mire.