A general strike got under way in Israel on Monday, shutting down hospitals, banks and the country's main international airport, but was to last only four hours, Israel's army radio reported.

The decision to let the strike go ahead on a limited basis from 6:00 am (0400 GMT) was taken by the National Labour Court which debated the issue through the night following the collapse of talks between the powerful Histadrut trades union and the finance ministry.

The strike, which will shut down government offices, the country's ports, port offices and the Tel Aviv stock exchange for most of the morning, centres on the working conditions of hundreds of thousands of contract workers employed by the government.

Workers at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv were to join the strike from 8:00 am (0600 GMT), with dozens of flights brought forward to avoid the shut down, but people were to return to work at 10:00 am, and it was not clear when scheduling would return to normal, army radio said.

Hospitals would be staffed on a sabbath footing, as would public utilities, including the electricity board, and buses and trains would not be running across much of the country.

The Histadrut has accused the government of massively increasing its use of contract workers, who enjoy fewer rights and protections than civil service workers covered by collective bargaining agreements.

"This open-ended strike is intended to protest the second class status of hundreds of thousands of Israelis working in the public sector and some private companies," Histadrut spokesman Eyal Malma told AFP.

"The use of these workers, who do not benefit from the same social rights and are underpaid, has become a veritable epidemic to which we must put a stop," he added.

Malma said use of contract workers, who can be fired without notice and lack many holiday and other entitlements, had mushroomed to the extent that it was difficult to know how many people were now affected.

The Histadrut wants the government to employ hundreds of thousands of contract workers but until now, talks with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz have stalled over the numbers.

The union wants the government to offer a percentage of its current contract workers coverage under the civil service's collective bargaining agreement to ensure them the same rights and protections as their colleagues.

But the government has warned it will not take any measures that could endanger Israel's economy, while saying it is open to increasing the minimum wage paid to contract workers and increasing their rights.