Israel has been hit by a public sector strike that has shut down banks, ports, airports, schools and government offices. The action is in protest at government plans to cut jobs and wages.

Some 700,000 government employees walked off their jobs Wednesday in an open ended general strike against proposed cuts in the national budget.

The country came to a near standstill as a result of the industrial action. Banks, schools, and other government offices are closed and all international flights in and out of Israel have been suspended.

Histradut, the national federation of trade unions, is protesting a proposal to slash $2.3 billion in government spending.

The cuts will result in the layoff of thousands of public sector employees, including teachers, as well as reductions in wages and pensions.

The Israeli government condemned the strike and said it will introduce legislation Wednesday in the parliament to implement the austerity plan.

Israel's finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says the plan is necessary to promote growth and save the economy, which has been plunged into deep recession during nearly three years of violence with the Palestinians.

Opening the debate in the parliament, Mr. Netanyahu was heckled as he spoke of the virtues of the financial proposals.

In his address, he insisted that the changes are necessary to bring Israel into line with economic reforms instituted in other parts of the world.

Despite the vehement public opposition to the planned budget cuts, the parliament is expected to approve the plan.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ruling coalition has 68 members in the 120 member Knesset, and only a few within the government were expected to either vote against the plan or abstain.